The Vietnam War Remembered Part I: Ho by David Halberstam

Note: As we come up on the 50th Anniversary of the Pentagon Papers, and with the recent release of the Afghanistan Papers, we felt it was timely to look back at the conflict in Vietnam. Over the next month, I am doing an examination of several Vietnam-era historical works that examine both sides of the conflict. Part I will be the biography Ho by David Halberstam, a deep-dive into understanding the nationalist movement of Vietnam. Part II will be If I Die in a Combat Zone by Tim O’Brien, one of the seminal works of the American combat experience in the war. Part III will be They March Into Sunlight by David Maraniss, a look at the domestic turmoil the war on the ground caused at The University of Wisconsin-Madison in October 1967. Part IV will be Patriots by Christian Appy, a reflection of the war by those who fought on both sides.

No western work of the Vietnamese independence movement encapsulates the contradiction in thought between the West and the Vietnamese more aptly than David Halberstam’s Ho. Halberstam, writing the original publication of Ho as the war unfolded in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, was constrained by a limited access to materials historians would later have at their disposal. Still, the work was surprisingly adept for its time at assessing the true causes of Vietnamese success in their fight for independence. Halberstam discards the common western modus operandi of labeling wars (after World War II) as fights against communism and more aptly describing them, at least from the perspective of Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh, as a struggle for the true autonomy of his people. Conflict to achieve self-government had not been a foreign idea to the Vietnamese, as centuries of fighting to resist Chinese subordination had predisposed the population towards fighting for their mere survival. The Vietnamese leadership of the era would agree, notably military commander Vo Nguyen Giap, who would later remark that “we won the war because we would rather die than live in slavery.”1Christian G. Appy, Patriots (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), 43. At the core of Ho’s effectiveness in leading the Vietnamese people was his ability to harness their nationalistic impulses to a common cause focused on rebuffing even the most powerful military nation on the planet. Uncle Ho, as he came to be called, was able to resonate with his own countrymen because his “goals have always been his people’s goals”, an aspiration to control their own fate without foreign intervention.2David Halberstam, Ho (New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2007), 117.

After the 1954 fall of Dien Bien Phu ensured Vietnamese victory over their French colonial masters, the western world would have been hard-pressed to not notice the primitive and unembellished nature of the victors compared to the more advanced and adorned military culture of the losers. It was counter-intuitive to generations of westerners that such a backward people would be able to defeat one of the most advanced nations in the world, throwing off a colonial yoke that had existed for almost one hundred years in less than a decade time. What the French government failed to realize at the time, and the succeeding generation of Americans would also fail to grasp in the 1950’s and 1960’s, was that the true power of the Vietnamese came not in elegantly clad soldiers or with advanced weaponry on the battlefield. Instead, their power manifested from nationalistic impulses in their hearts and the yearning to eradicate foreign oppression in their own land after generations of foreign meddling. Most compellingly, they succeeded because Ho dedicated his life to becoming a “living embodiment to his own people…of their revolution.3Halberstam, 12.

Ho was born amid the entrenchment of French colonial power in the region of Indochina. The idea behind the imperialistic goals of nations in the era was to increase power and prestige through the accumulation of foreign lands ultimately governed from the European capital cities. In 1884 Prime Minister Jules Ferry of France justified the French colonial empire by admitting that the “higher races have a right over the lower races…a duty to civilize the inferior races.”4Robert J. McMahon, Major Problems in the History of the Vietnam War (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2008.) As one can infer, the opinion of Vietnamese culture from Paris was not flattering. Their abuses spread to the economic sector, where low wages, plundered lands, heavy taxes, and public loans “reduced us (the Vietnamese) to wretchedness.”5McMahon, 21.

Ho was born in this time when one had to acclimate to the French style to attain limited success, and when those who did not were usually left destitute in its wake. His family did not take to the diminishment of Vietnamese sovereignty and they would lead revolutionary lives throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The future Vietnamese leader was blessed with the good fortune to travel abroad and he often went to places that had drastic influences on his political thought. He developed, according to Halberstam, a “quiet admiration for the best of westerners and their traditions” but was also exposed to the poor slums of Paris, a contradiction of the France portrayed in his own homeland.6Halberstam, 23. His ideas of freedom, sovereignty, democracy, and technological advancement were all hardened and his visit laid the foundations to turn “an angry patriot into a modern revolutionary.7Halberstam, 24. He was sure to note that although Indochina was a French possession, they had “neither freedom of the press nor freedom of speech….freedom of assembly and freedom of association do not exist,” as they would in Paris, Lyon, or Marseilles.8McMahon, 20. As the Treaty of Versailles was being adopted after World War I and the President of the United States Woodrow Wilson advocated for his Fourteen-Point Plan, Ho proposed his own Eight-Point Plan asking for representation in the French Parliament, freedom of the press, and equal rights, among other measures. Although he was dismissed in France, his reputation grew in his homeland.

Moving to Russia in 1923, Ho admitted being drawn to Lenin before he even read his work; his ability to liberate his compatriots was highly appealing to Ho. Eventually he felt communism was the best system to aid the “revolution of the oppressed nations and the exploited working class.”9McMahon, 21. His introduction to communism, more than any other early occurrence, helped him transition from a thinker to a revolutionary, a theorist to an activist. Ho would often be at odds with the Stalinist of communism emanating across the globe from Moscow. For instance, Ho would never embrace the realpolitik of the USSR in dealing with colonial powers such as France under the Popular Front in the 1930’s, nor would he ever succumb to any urge to purge his people or party like Uncle Joe Stalin during the same era. However, he would grow to feel that his form of communism provided his best chance of advancing the nationalist cause of his nation. As Halberstam succinctly put, Ho was “part Gandhi, part Lenin, all Vietnamese.”10Halberstam, 12.

However, there were antecedents for Vietnamese nationalism that would become, at least in Ho’s mind, hindrances to this new movement.  For instance, Ho’s father’s friend, Phan Boi Chau, was one of the most respected and revered early voices for the nationalist movement, although many of Chau’s reforms would seem antiquated by the time Ho began to take his revolutionary practices from theory to reality. Chau’s methods, honed before the dawn of the 20th century, seemed stale for Ho’s liking, a “relic of the past” compared to Ho’s modern Marxist agenda.11Halberstam, 44 Ho would eventually out Chau to French authorities while both were in Canton in the mid-1920’s, leading to the latter’s arrest and imprisonment. To Ho, removing Chau from the convoluted Vietnamese nationalist movement would consolidate Vietnamese peasants under his guidance. Halberstam, who earlier praises Ho for his ability to remain “uncorrupted in a corrupt world”, avoids criticizing Ho for his actions against Chau and other competing nationalist groups, either due to a bias in favor of Ho or an inability to reconcile iniquitous acts with the greater narrative of an altruistic patriot. Halberstam attempts to justify the political maneuver by pointing out that Chau was eventually pardoned of wrongdoing and hinting that his removal helped the revolutionary cause because many young Vietnamese had become weary of the “vagueness and softness of Chau’s policies.”12Halberstam 13, 44-50.

Regardless of a moral justification for Ho’s treatment of Chau, Ho’s belief in the communist system further fostered his ability to organize effectively. As the Second World War commenced, he founded a permanent nationalist settlement in Vietnam, called Pac Bo, in the mountainous Cao Bang region in the winter of 1940. The next year he would form the Vietminh, the organization that would lead the way in fighting the French and Americans for the majority of the next three decades. He recognized that there would be a vacuum in Vietnam after the war, and the void would be filled by “the best-organized and best-disciplined indigenous force.”13Halberstam,61. Ho was right: after the war France was severely weakened and did not have near the control in possessed before the fall of Indochina in 1940.

Other nationalist groups existed during the period, but they did not have near the organization skills or tenacity for the moment that Ho possessed. France unknowingly aided Ho indirectly by removing overly-ambtious rival groups from power, those that were too premature in their attacks against a relatively stronger France in the 1930’s. In addition, other Vietnamese group, such as the Dai Vet, were too upper-class to acquire a broad base of support. These groups often wanted to remain in the upper echelon of society without giving any gained benefits to the common Vietnamese citizen, an independent and sovereign nation yet featuring a status-quo social structure. They were less forward-thinking and more reactionary and because of their haste, by post-World War II, only the Vietminh had any sort of military presence in the country. Expectedly, after the war, the Vietminh were able to establish power by neutralizing or eliminating rival nationalists and taking over key posts in Vietnamese political structures.

Ho led the Vietminh effectively because he was “brilliantly organized…to capture the seething nationalism of Vietnam.”14Halberstam 63. Halberstam postulates that it was his ability to walk among his own people and identify with their causes that led to his success in harnessing the nationalistic spirit. Even communism dared not approach the sanctity of nationhood; Ho often downplayed the communist role so people did not associate the movement with any outside influences from Moscow or newly-organized communist Beijing. Despite this outward strategy of ambivalence, Ho sent various associates to military academies in China and the USSR in the 1930’s anticipating armed hostilities in the future.

The bomb crater at A1 Hill, Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam

The future of Vietnam, as for all nations, was changed immediately following World War II. In the month after the Japanese surrender, Ho declared Vietnam independent, using words and prose similar to both the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Although the document did not guarantee the Vietnamese any sovereignty, it provided Ho a chance to be the face in the country’s negotiations with France, an “arbiter of Vietnamese nationalism.”15Halberstam, 82. An agreement between the two sides in March 1946 agreed to a united Vietnam under French rule with French military presence. Although the agreement was far from what Ho wanted, it provided the nation with some notion of relief from outright oppression. Still, the position of the French after the war was immovable. The restoration of pre-war France in Indochina was a serious goal for their politicians.

Ho felt these circumstances drastically favored the Vietnamese. Indochina cost France more than it was worth and Ho felt that if he could use the Vietminh to wage long, punitive wars against the French they would eventually be worn down. His guerrilla war would consist of attacking with strength, overwhelming the opponent when odds were in the favor of the Vietnamese, acquiring strength and weaponry as the conflict wore on. Although casualties would be high, Ho’s troops were willing to wage a total war against their overlords. While France tried to control territory and economic centers, the Vietminh sought to control the minds and souls of their population.

France’s “war of vanity and pride” against Vietnam’s “war of survival” resulted in a war of attrition that France would be destined to lose. The disregard for territory and a lack of emphasis on fixed military engagements by Ho turned the military inclinations of old guard in France on its head. The Giap-led revolutionary warfare – political, psychological, and of course military, presented the French with a foe they could only beat if they became fractured. The leadership of Ho ensured this would not occur. Ho is comparable in many ways to Winston Churchill when the British Isles were under attack from a seemingly insurmountable Nazi assault. He advocated for a united movement that “will not pause and…will die of exhaustion and loss of blood,” an outlook that was shocking to the already war-weary French. This led to the military disaster at Dien Bien Phu that should have guaranteed Vietnamese independence.

Although Ho did not advance communism as the calling-card of the revolution, leery politicians in the United States saw the events unfolding in Vietnam as severe threats to their policy of containment of the ideology. Ho had once been “optimistic about American help”, even working with the American intelligence community in World War II.16Appy, 37. However, circumstances in America had changed profoundly, as American politicians were focused on who lost China to communism. For American diplomats and politicians, witnessing another nation falling to the communist bloc would be a dire blow to American interests in the region This was the era when American politics were dominated by the domino theory, and any the emergence of any new communist nation further escalated fears of widespread capitalistic collapse. Instead of allowing Ho to govern as the leader of the free Vietnamese, delegates at the Geneva Conference in 1954 decided to split the nation into two, north and south, and hold elections in two years. These elections would never take place.

The leader that would eventually lead the south immediately after the Geneva Accords was Ngo Dinh Diem. It was theorized that constitutional checks on Diem’s power would weaken his ability to govern effectively; therefore, Diem led a virtual police state with little domestic allies. Diem represented the old regime, even having French corporals serve in his military. As Ho’s modern revolutionary state was growing in the north, Diem’s “feudal, anachronistic” government was fracturing in the south as purges were increasing in both severity and frequency.17Halberstam, 109. The appointment of Diem pleased Ho as he recognized that Diem’s dependence on foreign aid would alienate him with Vietnamese nationalists, perpetuating his reliance on American support and munitions until eventual defeat.

 Increasing American aid and involvement in Vietnam throughout the early 1960’s was a direct function of the spiraling dysfunction of the Diem regime. In 1962 the United States gave weapons and radio equipment to the Diem regime but the ineffectiveness of the regime on the ground led to its procurement by Vietminh (which came to be known as Viet Cong) forces. In 1963, The Diem government collapsed and Diem was assassinated. The following year the southern Vietnamese resistance was eliminated and the United States had to make the choice whether to abandon their attempts to rid the nation of communist influences or continue on a path of escalation. By February 1965, the United States was bombing the North Vietnamese.

 As in the previous war, Ho’s popularity was the Viet Cong’s, perhaps even more so in juxtaposition with the government installed in the South. Ho and Giap advanced a similar strategy that had worked against the French, advocating a war of attrition, frustrating the Americans, wearing them out, bogging them down, and eventually causing them to capitulate. The Americans had a more powerful air force than the French, causing the Vietminh to fight closer to cities and American lines, hoping to mitigate the advantages in aerial superiority. Ho refused to provide a target for which the Americans to aim, an achievable goal that they could point to as progress, or an achievable objective upon which to pin victory. Without these ends, and considering “that which is not a total success in Indochina will be a total failure,” revisionist history would point to an inevitable American disappointment.18Halberstam, 114.

Statue of Uncle Ho in front of City Hall in Ho Chi Minh City

Notwithstanding this pessimistic outlook, the government of the United States attempted to report major advances in the war throughout 1967, maintaining that the Vietnamese, not the Americans, were winning the war. By February 1968, however, this mirage had evaporated. The Tet Offensive, a Viet Cong military advance that attacked forces all over Vietnam, “punctured overnight the official American illusion of an exhausted enemy and imminent American victory.”19Halberstam, 115. The campaign cast a long shadow on all of the decisions to escalate US involvement made by American Presidents going back to Dwight Eisenhower, as each subsequent head of state “acted as if they were trapped by the history they inherited.”20Appy, 35. Contrarily, Ho refused to accept the history of his nation as a dependent state, rebuffed colonialist desires, and spurned the status quo by embracing ideas absorbed through the very culture of the nations he sought to depose. While Americans pointed towards his communist tendencies for justifications for war, Ho used the ideology to seek the very autonomy and sovereignty that the founders of America had eulogized for centuries, evidencing a paradox between American foreign policy in the latter half of the 20th century and the country’s’ foundations two centuries earlier. Although Halberstam indicates there were two Ho’s, the “Gandhi-side”and the less peaceful communist military leader, it is clear that the personalities were cooperative and inseparable: that the nationalist was impotent without the organizing principles of the communist, and the communist aimless without the ideals and goals of the nationalist.

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