Monday, June 28, 2010

Vietnam Wars, 1946-1954

This chapter takes us from the end of the 40s, through to 1954, with a special emphasis on Dienbienphu. Once again, Young’s focus is the obtuseness about, and sometimes the willful ignorance of the west concerning the situation in Vietnam. She also has written several lines, scattered throughout the chapter, which painfully, searingly illustrate this early conflict in ways that few political histories do—and certainly would have been sidestepped by narratives opting for a more “objective” view.

Several problems are intersecting, causing US involvement in the first place. Following the end of WWII, the US is caught up in the restoration of Europe, and in this case France, at any cost—even though that means supporting a colonial regime which the US, at least ideologically, cannot condone. I wondered what was keeping the French presence in Indochina, since it seemed like it would have been all expenditure, with very little economic return. As it turns out, the French were concerned that releasing this one country would lead to a loss of control in their other, more profitable colonies, especially Algeria and Morocco. While this alone would have mattered little to the US, the Americans probably saw a rising expenditure on France, and the possible loss of raw materials traded in the west. These economic reasons were driving US interest and support of French troops, some of which (Young points out) were former Nazi soldiers.

There was also a growing US paranoia of communism. While this book can’t devote much space to this issue, it is a puzzling one. While there is already a history of American fear of communism prior to the 1940s, it still seems strange that the US could fail to see Ho’s continual appeals to the US as anything but an attempt to secure help from a nation he wanted to emulate. The Viet Minh connection to the Soviets, and later to China, was borne out of US blindness and refusal to acknowledge a nationalist, independence movement in Vietnam.

Meanwhile, the US is looking, rather shiftily, at ways around both the French colonial and the Viet Minh rule of Indochina. Here is where we intersect with Pyle, Graham Greene’s dangerous innocent from the state department. While Pyle is a fiction, his idea of a third force is very much a reality to the United States. While it is interesting to sit back and wonder at the decisions of the US state department and military, I find that it’s easy enough to envision being the dangerous innocent in this scenario: Pyle was a product of irrational political and strategic thinking, dressed up as rationality, and enough people in the US were convinced of this—enough to make it a reality.

The chapter ends with the French loss at Dienbienphu, and Young includes some very strong lines from people who were there, about how the heroism of the French in battle was no answer to the (less militarily strong) Vietnamese, who were fighting for an ideal. Furthermore, Young has included General Navarre’s 1953 map, which shows French-controlled and Viet Minh territories, and the situation seems stark, in general. French Hanoi, for instance, is surrounded on all sides by entirely Viet Minh territory (save the Tonkin coastline), and for a moment, can’t you envision yourself as a French citizen, trapped and perpetually at risk?

What this chapter suggests to me, in this initial reading, is that the United States were attempting to think strategically, with increasingly complex goals which were mostly economic in nature. The economic and strategic goals were almost entirely new (based on a new economy) and untested, and required delicate and constant control of everyone involved. It is amazing that the results weren’t even more disastrous than they were. Should the United States have acted based on its foundational principles instead (such as self-government or decolonization), the US might have avoided a long conflict in Southeast Asia, and it would have been unlikely that the Vietnamese would have closely aligned themselves with either the Soviets or the Chinese communist party. But historical speculation is a dangerous thing—it is reminiscent of hubris.

Halong Bay; it was like swimming in bathwater (MEW, 1996)

No comments: