Quảng Nam province 1955
On that night, villagers heard scream on a sand dune. They knew it was the revenge by nationalists. On the next morning, people talked to each other that Mr. Secretary of the Communist party of their district was killed by Mr. Lieutenant. Mr. Lieutenant was an officer of National government; he arrived to the village on an American jeep with soldiers, and weapon, and inflamed with murderous anger. After detaining the Secretary, Mr. Lieutenant asked subordinates to sharpen a bamboo rode as small as a chopstick, but very very sharp. At midnight, they brought the Secretary to the sand dune, then he pushed slowly, very slowly the sharpened bamboo rod into the Secretary’s heart...that was the horrified scream that villagers heard.
An afternoon in December, a woman held a one-year-old child in her arms. She was walking back to the city after the bombing raids in October. Everyone assumed that air raids by American were over; they were preparing to return to their houses after be evacuated to the suburbs. Her husband went to their house yesterday to organize and clean in advance. When mother and son arrived at the edge of the city, loudspeakers began to warn “Attention, compatriots American jets are 50km away from the city!”Holding her son, she stepped down to a bomb shelter... A loudspeaker continued to announce the distance of the first group of American planes to the city: 30km, then 20 km, and then series of bombs dropped to the earth shaking the shelter, swinging it back and forth like a hammock. Later on, president Nixon announced on TV that Operation Linebacker II has started.
Quang Ngai 1972
A tumult of shouting and screaming broke out. People ran toward a crowd; some for curiosity, some for help.
- What happen?
- A grenade exploded.
- Call ambulance!
On the stretcher laid a young sergeant with bleeding wound in his belly. People told that he was on the way to his home for the Tet, stopping and watching the cock fighting and then a grenade exploded. Somebody said that is was an attacked by VC. Later people know that the sergeant had died, left two orphans and a widow. That was just a beginning of their miserable.
A one-year-old child in Hanoi of 1972 is me. Thanks to Buddha, my mother, my father, and me had stayed away from American bombs. Other 278 people in Hanoi and Haiphong city did not have that luck. Far from Hanoi, more than 1000 km down to the South of Vietnam, my great-uncle, a Secretary of the Party of a local district, and my uncle, a young Sergeant of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam did not have that luck. They died while were in different sides of the war. If multiplying my family’s losses to million times, we would have the agony of the whole nation from 1945 to 1975. This incomprehensible crazy tragedy for millions of Vietnamese families is still seen today as hatred between people who are considered themselves as nationalists and who are communists had never been faded. There was no true reconciliation after the country’s unification. The nation’s tragedy started from 1858 when French colonial force attacked the Fort of Danang.
There is a whole literature about Vietnamese people’s struggle for independence by Vietnamese and American. But one of the most important that has been published recently is “Why Vietnam? Prelude to American’s Albatross” by Archimedes L.A. Patti, a Captain in Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the predecessor of CIA, in Indochina by that time. In his book, Patti tells stories about his first contacts with Vietminh Front and Ho Chi Minh, started from adopting a rescued pilot shot down by Japanese force in Indochina, to the first days of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, to the historic event when Ho Chi Minh read the Declaration of Independence in which he quoted Thomas Jefferson’s “All men are created equal. They are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Nevertheless, from Patti’s book, a single word could pop up to readers’ minds: if. If Ho Chi Minh had not joined the Third International? If he had not been trained in Moscow? If Truman, Stalin, and Churchill while redrawing the world map, had demarcated the boundary of Vietnam and had given self-determination for Vietnamese people? (Ironically, Soviet Union was the country that Ho put his high hope for recovering independence for Vietnam when he read Lenin’s “Thesis about national and colonial issues” first time.) Finally, if American had taken side by Vietnamese people to support their will of independence then the course of modern history of Vietnam and America would have turned into different directions. If all conditions had realized, my mother and I would not have stayed in a bomb shelter in horrified night of 1972, my great-uncle would not have been killed by a bamboo rod by a nationalist, and my young and handsome uncle would not have died by a grenade explosion by VC. The most importance is millions of Vietnamese people would not have been endured such extreme suffering.
On the Hearts and Minds, a documentary movie, Daniel Ellsberg has mentioned that it was just simple that “We chose the wrong side” (see Hearts and Minds). Of course, that was time of the Vietnam War but the side that American chose was wrong from a fateful year of 1945, when officers from the Department of State did not dispatch letters from Ho Chi Minh to Truman (432. Duiker). But even if they had reached to Truman, the then provisional President Ho Chi Minh did not know that President Truman after assumed the presidency on the death of Roosevelt has implicitly discarded his predecessor’s effort to prevent the restoration of French colonialism in Vietnam. Therefore, Ho Chi Minh admiration for the United States’ commitment for democratic principles and President Roosevelt’s sympathy for the independence of people in Indochina (Roosevelt wrote, “France has milked it for one hundred years. The people of Indochina are entitled to something better than that”) must be shrunken (283, 330). The readers have feeling that golden opportunities between two nations were passed. Even General Vo Nguyen Giap said to John Kennedy’s son in 1998 that in the past Vietminh and America were allies in front of anti-Japanese fascism (Quoc, 2004).
According to Patti, there was a turning point in American policy toward the Southeast Asia by prevalence of “Europeanists” in the Department of State that tacitly approved the French and the British in their restoration of colonialism in Southeast Asia. Since then, America did not question French colonialism in Southeast Asia (341, Duiker). The main reason that William Duiker, a Ho Chi Minh’s biographer and Patti thought for the change in American policy is the fear of the Red wave in Asia, which now we see it is very much like the “geopolitical fears” that Mathew Sparke describes for the post 9/11. Another question pops out; does it mean history is repeated when we see the fear of global terrorism after the fear of global communism?
However, this is not the only reason, when view from insight of imaginative geographies, there are other reasons for American involvement in Southeast Asia, for support French colonialism, and then for building up a puppet anti-communist government in South Vietnam. This is an imperialist ambition after World War II when both Soviet Union and United States were seeking to build dominant powers in the world (see Said in interview). This imperialism is nurtured through culture and become an intellectual project for reasoning the military involvement and the duty to bring civilization to “uncivilized” land (Gregory, 2004). There is the distinction in imperialist culture, the distinction between “us” and “them.” While “us” as civilized, reasoning “them” as barbarian and unreasoning. As Said put it succinctly:
Colonialism is not best understood primarily as a political or economic relationship that is legitimized or justified through ideologies of racism or progress. Rather, colonialism has always, equally importantly and deeply, been a cultural process (Said, in Gregory 2004.)
That kind of imperialism in culture helps French troops came back to Vietnam after World War II. Nevertheless, the reasons for American involvement in Vietnam were not just because of geopolitical fears and culture that are nurtured in imperialist spirit in both America and France, but it is also the opportunist attitude that expressed clearly in the word of a White House aid “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality” (in Sparke, according to Suskind). Thus, America wanted to take its advantages based on the situation that it considers to the best for exploitation. These words said much more later, after Vietnam war was over but can apply perfectly during the time of American involvement in Indochina. This reflects both the idealistic and pragmatic of America: on one hand, it wanted to stop communist expansion in South East Asia, on the other hand, raised the ambition to exploit situation for its best interest to be a sole superpower. Nevertheless, those calculations became wrong and became the tragedy for America, and then Vietnam.
Finally, the geoeconomics of hopes can also be applied in Vietnam before and during the war. Like Iraq, the war in Vietnam did not bring America any economic benefits but there was a hope for the new open market in Vietnam. These opportunities were well mentioned in Hearts and Minds movie when we see in the middle of bloodshed, both Vietnamese and American businessmen gathered, ate, drunk, and talked about the economic affairs and future investment.
So, from all these three reasons above, we hardly see any chance for the withdrawal of American support to French colonial ambition in 1945 and afterward. In those reasons, the fear of communist expansion is the direct cause of American intervention in Indochina. The imperialism in culture, the economics of hopes, and opportunism are indirect cause. Therefore, there is no way for the if implied by Patti and Ellsberg and other good minds to be realized.
After reading above lines, readers may wonder should former colonized countries interrupt their connections with their former exploiters. In most cases, ex-colonial countries prefer to continue linkages with their ousted colonizers. They want to have investment, education, technologies, and the likes from former colonizers. They join Francophonie organization and the Commonwealth of Nations aka British Commonwealth. Nevertheless, the most important thing is the universal values of human rights, freedom, and democratic principles are the timeless and borderless values that the oppressed people admire and pursue. This is not imperialist imaginative construction at all. Let us see the way East and Southeast Asian countries tacitly hail the America’s engagement policy in the Asia Pacific by Obama’s administration. Let us see how the world is under tension on these days with the North Korea provocation. At this moment of the end of 2010, I would say that the world would be much better with a truly pro-democratic America.
Duiker, W. 2000. Ho Chi Minh, Newyork: Hyperion.
Gregory, D. 2004. The Colonial Present. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing.
Hearts and Minds http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rjAEdvF2Q4w&feature=related
Patti, Archimedes. Why Vietnam? Prelude to American’s Albatross. University of California Press. 1982
Quoc, T. D. 2004. Vo Nguyen Giap from the view of a historian (Võ Nguyên Giáp dưới góc nhìn của người viết sử). Tuoitre online http://tuoitre.vn/Chinh-tri-Xa-hoi/31816/Vo-Nguyen-Giap-duoi-goc-nhin-cua-nguoi-viet-su.html. Retrieved in Dec 2nd, 2010.
Said, E. Interview with alternativeradio.com
Said, E. 1993. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Vintage Books.
Sparke, M. 2007. Geopolitical Fears, Geoeconomic Hopes, and the Responsibilities of
Geography. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 97:338-349.
 Nationalists are those who follow Bao Dai, an ex-emperor, then the Head of State of South Vietnam.
 National government was established by French for Bao Dai as a Head of State, later it became the Republic of Vietnam
 Lunar New Year, this is not the Tet Offensive in 1968, since it was 1972 already.
 VC or Vietcong: communist guerillas
 Coincidently, Danang is my hometown.
 The anti-colonialist movement led by Vietnamese communists
 The government has been established by Vietminh since 1945, later became the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.