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Southeast Asia

Vietnam: The ghost still haunts America

By Alexander Casella

No peace, No honor, Nixon, Kissinger and betrayal in Vietnam - By Larry Berman, Free Press

A quarter of a century after the fall of Saigon. the ghost of the Vietnam War still haunts the United States. Coming to terms with its first defeat in its short 200-plus year history is proving a long and painful process for the only remaining superpower.

Much of the protracted agony results from the slow but irreversible process by which once classified documents on the war are being made public, each adding another dimension to an already multifaceted past.

By drawing on hundreds of newly declassified documents, Professor Larry Berman not only confirms what were until now only suspicions but also casts a new light on the overall negotiations process that led to the Paris Peace Accords in 1973.

Berman's work is essentially the story of an American epic. He shows little feeling and even less sensitivity to what might have been the concerns of the other participants of the Paris negotiations, namely the Vietnamese, be they from Hanoi or Saigon. But it is this very shortcoming that renders his work of particular relevance to Asia.

Indeed, the ethnocentricity of his book and his total focus on an American value system being imposed on an Asian negotiation process is a lesson in itself, albeit one of which the author is no doubt totally unconscious.

Berman does confirm a number of events or policies that are of more than passing interest, namely, that prior to the November 1968 US presidential elections, Taiwan conspired to undermine Huber Humphrey's election bid by talking South Vietnam's President Nguyen Van Thieu into withholding his presence at the Paris peace talks which had been initiated by the Democrats.

The instrument of this conspiracy was Anna Chennault, the widow of General Claire Chennault of Flying Tiger fame and a close confident of Madame Chang Kai-check. Anna Chennault, one of the most vocal members of the China lobby in Washington, convinced General Thieu that he would get a better deal under Nixon that with a Democrat president. Thieu thus stonewalled the talks until after the election of Richard Nixon, which led one of his associates to comment that "we deprived the Democrats of their electoral victory".

While the statement might have been somewhat self-serving, the postponement of the talks certainly hurt the Democrats in their bid to distance themselves from the Vietnam policies of President Lyndon Johnson.

There is also confirmation that Beijing in 1968 tried to discourage Hanoi from negotiating and likewise did not encourage Hanoi to launch its offensive against the South in March 1975. Another confirmation is that Nixon had no intention of exiting Vietnam and only wished to "Vietnamize" the conflict, which would then have become an unending confrontation between Vietnamese with the US providing continued assistance to the South.

To his credit, Berman, does not overlook the two current explanations as to why the Paris Peace Accords failed. These are the fact that the US Congress and Watergate destroyed the ability of the US government to enforce the agreements by resuming the bombing of the North when Hanoi invaded the South.

The other reason is that all the US wanted was the freeing of its prisoners of war so as to be able to pull out of Vietnam, which was no longer of strategic interest to Washington. The Vietnamese were thus left to settle their scores among themselves and Washington would do nothing to impede Hanoi to take over the South after a "decent interval".

To these two explanations, both of which are plausible, Berman adds his own. In his view, nobody took the Paris agreements seriously. The US was ready to continue the war through its South Vietnamese proxy, Hanoi had not given up its dream to unify the country and Thieu had no intentions of ever coming to an agreement with any of his adversaries, be they communist or not. Thus for all sides, Paris was only a pause, if not an excuse to continue the war for all concerned. What finally derailed the process was Watergate, which neutralized Washington's ability to reintervene directly in the conflict.

It is difficult to fault Berman with what is clearly a plausible and well-thought analysis of the respective positions of the parties to the agreement.

However, had Berman confined himself to the rendering of history he would have stayed on solid ground. Unfortunately, he could not resist the temptation to digress into morals, a dangerous subject indeed for a historian. And like the Vietnam War, rather than being presented as an exercise in the use of force to preserve a balance of power, real or imagined, in Asia the intervention assumed, in the American mythology, the proportions of a moral crusade, and Berman the professor changes into Berman the moralist.

For the sophisticated reader it is a fascinating exercise to follow; the American obsession to coat the exercise of power with a veneer of Judeo-Christian morality culminating in the delusion that politics can mirror personal relations. Berman's title "No peace, no honor" is a reference to the 1938 Munich agreement when Britain and France sold Czechoslovakia to Hitler in the hope of appeasing the dictator. Britain's then Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain termed the agreement "Peace with Honor". It turned out to be war with dishonor.

Berman equates what he terms the "betrayal of South Vietnam" in 1973, resulting from the Paris peace agreements with the sellout of Czechoslovakia in 1938, overlooking the fact that one was a vibrant European democracy with an elected government and the other a nasty Asian dictatorship ruled by a military clique that had seized power in a coup.

And while his sympathies clearly go to America's alleged "ally" - General Thieu - he is clearly too uninterested in Vietnam to ask who General Thieu really was.

Born in 1924 in central Vietnam in a small landowner family, Nguyen Van Thieu briefly flirted with the Viet Minh before joining the French colonial army in 1945 where he rose to the rank of sergeant. When South Vietnam became independent after 1954, Thieu, by default, went to officers' school and graduated as a lieutenant. By 1963, he was an obscure colonel commanding a division when a group of senior army officers overthrew South Vietnam's President Ngo Dinh Diem.

Thieu did not participate actively in the coup but stayed in the sidelines, and for this feat he was rewarded with a promotion to general. Two years later he launched his own coup and stayed in power for the next 10 years.

The Americans found Thieu to their liking. He was fanatically anti-communist and he let them run the war, and most of South Vietnam, as they intended. Conversely, they let Thieu free to consolidate his power by putting all his army cronies, however incompetent they were, in all key posts, be they military or civilian.

What Thieu's real commitment to the US was is reflected in an incident, which occurred in 1967. By the fall of 1966, the Vietcong had suffered a serious blow in Saigon when most of the senior members of their political infrastructure were denounced by a defector and arrested by the South Vietnamese police. To recoup some of their losses, the Vietcong sent an emissary to the US embassy in Saigon with a list of their prisoners held by the South Vietnamese government, which they proposed to exchange for some American prisoners. The Vietcong prisoners were being held in the jungles of South Vietnam and were in far more difficult conditions than the pilots held by Hanoi. Thieu's policy was to disrupt any possible direct contact between the US and the Vietcong, and when he got wind of the proposal he decided to derail it.

In January 1967 he ordered the top two persons on the list the Vietcong wanted released - Tran van Khieu, head of the Saigon workers committee and Madame Le Thi Rieng, head of the Liberation Front women's committee - moved from Chi Hoa jail to another detention center. Both were taken from their cell into a prison van. There they were dispatched with a bullet through the head and their bodies dumped at Cho Quan hospital. It was only after the Vietcong threatened to retaliate that the US embassy succeeded in pressuring Thieu into not assassinating the remainder of the prisoners on the Vietcong list and the prisoner exchange was finally was held in March 1968.

Such was Thieu's commitment to the lives of his American allies. Prince Norodom Sihanouk. of Cambodia once commented that friendship between nations is only the concurrence of national interests. When interests no longer concur, friendship wanes. As long as the war proceeded the interests of Thieu and Washington coincided, with the caveat that while a considerable number of individual Americans, be they state department, Central Intelligence Agency, civilian advisors or military, fell in love with Vietnam, Thieu did not fall in love with the US.

However, once the peace negotiations began in Paris it was clear that their interests diverged. Thieu wanted to stay in power and thus wanted the US to continue to fight the war for him. That he would have to fight it by himself, albeit with massive US military and financial support, was not an option he relished. And if he was willing to continue the war it was only to the last American dead.

Henry Kissinger on the other hand wanted out - not an unqualified out but one in which the US would get back its prisoners of war and leave behind in Saigon a regime which would at least appear to have a fighting chance of surviving.

Thus, for all practical purposes Thieu and Washington's interests were on a collision course, and if they did not completely diverge - both wanted to keep Hanoi from conquering the South - they no longer fully coincided.

It was therefore to be expected that Thieu would do all he could to first stonewall and then derail the Paris peace talks.

Confronted with not one but two Vietnamese antagonists, Hanoi and Thieu, Kissinger did the only thing he could do. He obfuscated, he told one side one thing and the other the opposite. It is yet unclear if Kissinger deliberately was planning to jettison South Vietnam, but if he was, with the wisdom of hindsight, it is to his credit. Indeed, as later events were to show, South Vietnam had become irrelevant to the preservation of the balance of power in Southeast Asia.

It is the unfolding of this complex and convoluted negotiation process that Berman artfully descries. The caveat is that the Kissinger, who is the object of his scorn, the "betrayer" of South Vietnam, emerges as the only American political figure of some standing and who had a clear view of where America's real geopolitical interests really stood.

By the time push came to shove in March 1975 and Hanoi launched its offensive against the South, the Americans had given Thieu the world's fourth largest army. He had more men, tanks, artillery pieces and aircraft than his communist adversaries, but to no avail. His generals were incompetent and corrupt. His soldiers refused to fight. Clearly, he had lost, or rather never had, the mandate of heaven.

In his conclusion, Berman describes how General Vernon Walters, who was a member of Kissinger's team in Paris, keeps to this day a small South Vietnamese flag on his desk. When asked why, Walters explains, "We let 39 million people fall into slavery."

It obviously never occurred to Walters, or to Berman, that 39 million people were not America's to let fall anywhere.

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