On Sunday the 7th October Max Hastings gave a fascinating talk to an assembled audience of nearly 500 people. The detail in the article below is a brief synopsis of his talk:-
Max Hastings gave an excellent talk on his new book: Vietnam: An epic tragedy 1945-1975. He reminded the audience that it was 50 years since the Mai Lai Massacre. The conflict lasted 3 decades and destroyed one American President and contributed to the downfall of another. 58000 US soldiers died in the war and between 200,000 and 300,000 South Vietnamese soldiers died. He said the war “was the prodigy of natural beauty and man- made horror”.
The real victims of the war were the civilians and in MH’s view blame could be laid with the US and French Government( as post WW11 colonising power) and subsequently the South Vietnamese government. Blame should also equally shared with the communist government in the north but very little of this was reported on. As in most wars neither side had a monopoly of virtue.
The French had colonised Vietnam in the 1880’s and lost it to the Japanese invaders in WW11. The French contrary to post war US policy were encouraged by the US government to remain in Vietnam as a bulwark against communism especially in China. The French suffered a catastrophic defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and Vietnam was then divided at the 17th parallel. The War restarted in 1965, after the communists in Vietnam had begun to establish themselves in the South, by US President Lyndon B Johnson who believed a large US military contribution ( 500,000 personnel) would defeat Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh forces. The US military campaign, particularly the air campaign, failed to achieve victory and moreover brought countless misery to the Vietnamese population. This campaign ultimately greatly weakened the American cause as the bombing was repellent to both sides and hugely reduced domestic support for the war in the USA and over time the willpower of US electorate was all but broken. Moreover the US Government failed to recognise the impact of foreign legions in the small towns and villages whereas the Communists were far less visible and set a ‘light footprint’. Having said that MH commented that the reporting of the war was unbalanced as nothing was reported in the press about the communist atrocities.
MH stated that the key lesson to be learnt from the war is that it hard to exploit battlefield success to build a sustainable country. Ultimately the US authorities were unable to deter the local people from supporting the Viet Minh guerrillas.
The war cost the USA £150bn but the true price was the national trauma on the USA’s ‘moral superiority,’ economic success and military invincibility. So tainted was the war amongst the US population that returning veterans were not at all well received by their fellow countrymen and in effect blamed for the war.
In the long term MH stated that the USA’s enormous economic influence did reverse the outcome of the war in the streets of Vietnam.
Did the USA learn anything about the war in Vietnam – not in MH’s view as otherwise they would not have entered the War against Iraq. He stated that if the French post war government had recognised that it could not carry on an empire the war may never have happened.
As to the Communists in the North no attempt was ever made post war at reconciliation and no representative attended any peace conference except at the very end.
Written by Roger Drage, Trustee, WCA