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Was the Vietnam War a Just War?

the vietnam war

Speech delivered at Centre for Asian Studies, The University of Adelaide

5th April, 2013

By Nguyen Ngoc Tan Ph.D.

The VN War must be understood as two completely different wars, one was the civil war between two Vietnamese factions, fighting for the control of the country; the other was the US intervention in Vietnam in the context of the Cold War, seeking to alter the global balance of power. They were different in natures, means, political objectives, as well as in their arenas. For example, while Hanoi had only one foreign policy - Indochina, Washington conducted a global intervention by the US from the perspective of world peace. In this seminar, we focus only on the American war to find out whether the US intervention in Vietnam was justifiable.

A-  The situation

The reality is that sixty years ago (1954), while the Cold War was in progress, the United States intervened in Vietnam’s internal affairs at a time when Vietnamese nationalists in the South had been fighting a Vietnamese communist invasion from the North. The Americans (by whom I mean pro-Chinese pragmatist politicians) were concerned about a potential nuclear war, Soviet global communism and Chinese intervention. They assumed responsibility for world leadership and came to Vietnam “to liquidate the civil war in a way that did not affect their entire international position.” In the process, they found it necessary to replace the legitimate nationalist government in Saigon with the communist government (the DRV) in Hanoi.[1] This regime has since ruled a unified Vietnam.

A unified Vietnam under communist rule and in China’s sphere of influence was, in fact, the status-quo stipulated in the 1954 Geneva Accords. It was this action to restore the existing state of affairs that permitted the United States to assemble an alliance of Western industrial democracies and enlist China’s co-operation. As a result, Soviet communism was contained and isolated, and eventually the USSR was unable to engage in economic competition. In the end, the USA won the Cold War and world peace was preserved.

This status-quo in Vietnam had, in fact, been architected by US Foreign Minister Foster Dulles in the 1954 Geneva Accords, and it was successfully restored by Dr. Henry Kissinger via the 1973 Paris Accords, during the administration of President Nixon.

International lawyers have held that intervention is excusable, if not strictly legal, when it is undertaken to preserve the balance of power.[2]  At that time, the US intervention in Vietnam appeared to be justifiable because it is clear that the American objective was to restore the status-quo in Indochina and preserve world peace. It was also clear that peace for Indochina was vital to US national security interests in the Cold War because it was a primary condition that allowed Washington to open a dialogue with Peking[3]. In addition, the US had to take on the responsibility of world leadership if it was to be able to assemble the alliance of industrial democracies with China‘s co-operation; and this overall strategy was dedicated to winning the Cold War.[4] Thus critics of the original containment policy appeared to be unrealistic when they argued that “Vietnam was too far away for the US to claim its national security interest.”

B- The dissents within the protest movements

However, in the aftermath of the war or to be precise, after the Nixon administration took on the responsibility of ending the war and extricating the Americans from Vietnam under honourable terms, dissents associated with the protest movements appeared and resurrected the argument of the Liberals, strenuously advocating that it was an unjust war and asserting that the US should not have been there in the first place. In his book “How did Americong help the Vietcong to defeat the common enemy: America?”, Dr Roger Canfield recorded that: “Consider the near universal effusive accounts of the peace movement, portraying idealistic youth and honest pacifists rightfully protesting an illegal and immoral war by US imperialism against innocent peasants in a faraway place of no strategic interest to the United States.”[5]

We all still remember the slogans disseminated by protest movements such as “Saigon is a corrupt and dictatorial government”, “We are on the wrong side”, “This is an unwinnable war,” “We should not have been there in the first place”. In general, they urged the Nixon administration to withdraw the US troops out of Vietnam unconditionally. At first glance, that seemed to be the only objective the anti-war and peace movements were after.

However, after the US troops had withdrawn out of Vietnam (1972), the peace movement continued to work for the replacement of the Saigon anti-communist government with a communist government. Slogans such as “The NLF was South Vietnamese who have risen up to overthrow the Saigon corrupted and puppet dictatorship”, “Saigon is a phantom government”, were displayed around the world. In Australia, for example, the slogan “For peace in Vietnam, recognise the PRG,” was written on the wall”[6].

What, then, was really the political goal of the anti-war movement? Was it to bring Americans troops home? If it was, why did it continue to operate after the US withdrawal? Like the Buddhist movement in VN, they continued their fight until the removal of the Saigon government was completed.

Though their claims were controversial, their slogans did exert a powerful impact on the strategy to discredit the legitimacy of the Saigon nationalist government for the recognition of the PRG, which was in fact, an instrument of the Vietnamese Communist Party in Hanoi.[7] Thus, it could be argued that another objective of the protest movement was also the replacement of the legitimate nationalist government in Saigon with the DRV in Hanoi.    

In retrospect, it is interesting to find that the goal of the peace movement is coincided with two tactical goals of the Nixon’s overall strategy in Vietnam: “To extricate the US from Vietnam (but) under honourable terms and restore the 1954 Geneva Accords status-quo,” with the intended outcome being an Indochinese “buffer zone” under the sphere of influence of China. Yet, a major component of this process was to bring down the nationalist government of South Vietnam in order to recognise the communist government in Hanoi as a legitimate government of a unified Vietnam. From this follow the questions: “Was there a systematic link between the Nixon administration and the protest movement? And what purpose was it for?

C- The Nixon Administration’s overall strategy

My answer to the 1st question is “yes” because the protest movement was one of six components of the overall Nixon strategy which had been foreshadowed as early as in mid 1950s by Dr Henry Kissinger[8]:

To extricate the US from VN under honourable condition;

to confine the dissent of the protest movement to Indochina;

to seize the high ground of the peace issue by a strategy that demonstrated to the American public that, even while pursuing the Cold War, the administration would do its utmost to control its dangers and gradually to overcome it;

to broaden the diplomatic chessboard to including China in the international system;

to strengthen our alliance;

and, from that platform, to go on the diplomatic offensive, especially in the Middle East.

The second component clearly reveals that the dissent of the protest movement was a part of the Nixon administration’s overall strategy. And this fact is undisputed.

But what did the administration use it for? The Nixon team did not believe the Cold War could be won in one grand assault, but rather by a complex strategy destined to achieve their objective in a series of stages. And the “Saigon problem” belonged to the very first stage of Nixon’s overall strategy to contain the Soviets.[9] For this reason, in order to achieve the objective of the fourth stage, the removal of the anti-communist government in Saigon had been considered to be the fundamental condition needed to assure the overall success of the strategy. In other words, the restoration of the status quo of the 1954 Geneva Accords - meaning the removal of the Saigon government -was a US vital interest, a key to opening China to the West, and the road to the final victory.

While the “Saigon problem” played a vital role in the long range American foreign policy, the proposed removal of Saigon was involved:

Scuttling an ally to appease an enemy;

Eliminating a legitimate independent nation state which had been recognised by more than eighty nations and was a member of the United Nations.

US strategists were quite well aware of the moral issues involved. It was even ascertained that “. . . to achieve our objective in stages, each of which by definition was bound to fall short of the ultimate ideal and could therefore be castigated as insufficiently moral.”[10] Yet Dr Kissinger determined to overcome this problem: he described the Saigon problem as only a “temporary weakness,” not a tragedy at all. This raised the question of just how he was to achieve the Nixon administration’s overall strategy objective without being castigated as “insufficiently moral”? The Nixon team had to find a political evolution to overcome all the shortcomings associated with the abandonment of the Saigon government.

In practice, Dr Kissinger came up with a well-thought tactic based on a pragmatic perspective which the Nixon team called it “a viable foreign policy” that would help dissociate the Nixon administration from all the perceived shortcomings and all blame for having scuttled the Saigon government of South Vietnamese ally to appease the Hanoi government.” In fact, with this policy, the Nixon team would be able to blame the Saigon tragedy and the violation of the 1973 Paris Accords on the protest movement, on either Saigon or Hanoi, on the opposition or even on the US Congress.[11]

The co-called “viable policy” was composed of two major components: “Decent Interval and Vietnamisation”. The political evolution of the “Decent Interval” allowed the Nixon team a decent time span to prepare for the removal of the Saigon government at the request of Hanoi, and then directed all the blame on to the Saigon regime and its military forces for having been incompetent[12].

The “Vietnamisation” strategy allowed the US Congress to pull out the props from under Saigon, which consequently altered the balance of military power in favour of Hanoi; Hanoi was later blamed for violating the international agreement when it overthrew the Saigon government by military forces (but in reality having been directed by Dr. Kissinger’s political evolution).

On the policy level, it had been decided that the goal of assisting South Vietnam to hold on a stalemated war and the unlimited time span required to develop democratic institutions, was unrealistic and beyond the perseverance of the American public.[13]

In fact, the pursuit of the Cold War objective and the limits to the perseverance of the American public both required a timeframe which would not be compatible with the unlimited time span required for conducting a protracted war in South Vietnam. The US strategists would not hold on to the Saigon government because the delay involved would undermine the US effort to open China to the West and hence foil the whole political and diplomatic process of the Cold War strategy, especially the US diplomatic effort in the Middle East.[14]     

How did Kissinger overcome the Saigon problem of “scuttling an ally to appease an enemy” without being criticised as “betrayal”? The secret that contributed to Dr Kissinger’s brilliant success was nothing but the protest movement. Dr. Kissinger used it to rally public support, both domestic and international, for overcoming obstacles to the realisation and legitimising of their tactics to achieve the goal of real peace and eventually to win the Cold War. He “confined the dissent of the protest movement to Indochina” then manipulated it as a tool to absorb all the shortcomings of the Saigon tragedy which he had treated only as a “temporary weakness”; and once it was overcome, he could broaden the diplomatic Cold War chessboard to include China to the alliance of Western industrial democracies he had assembled earlier. As a result, the Soviet Union became isolated from the rest of the world and trapped in economic incompetence.

In terms of achievement, the Nixon administration’s weapons - of a flexible diplomacy supported by a strong national defence and sound economic competition - won the Cold War. The threat of a nuclear war was fading, the Soviet global communism was contained and Chinese intervention was deterred. And based on international laws, the intervention was excusable because its objective was dedicated to the restoration of the 1954 Geneva Accords and peace for Indochina.

In fact, the objective of US intervention in Vietnam was to honour the commitment that US Foreign Minister Foster Dulles made at the Final Declaration of the 1954 Geneva Accords that “The United States will not do anything to upset the status-quo.” The American war should on these grounds be regarded as a just war.

All things considered, the Saigon problem was decided on the basis of strategic necessity because it was a US vital interest in the pursuit of the Cold War objective.  Pacifists of the peace movement boasted that “South Vietnam would have a better life under communist rule. Look at Vietnam under communist rule today and ask “What would have happened to Southeast Asia and the world, if the US had had moral scruples and not intervened in Vietnam in 1954 when the spread of Soviet communism seemed unstoppable?” And in the interests of the survival of the human community and world peace, should America’s policy in Vietnam have been described as illegal and immoral?

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your patience.

**



[1] The White House, Washington, Memorandum for H A. Kissinger from Winston Lord. Subject: Memcon of your conversation with Chou En Lai, July 29, 1971. Declassified September 5, 2001. Edited by W. Burr May 26, 2006. Reproduced at the National Security Archive. [from here cited as Memo for Kissinger]. “We came to Vietnam to liquidate the civil war in a way that did not affect our entire international situation. . . Any intervention in our domestic politics has two consequences. First, it forces us to react much more violently than we would have in normal circumstances; and second, it has consequences which go far beyond Vietnam and therefore make it a much more general problem than just the Vietnam problem.

[2] Wight Martin 1986, Power Politics, 2nd edition, England, p.196

[3] At the Conference of the Big Four in 1954, via USSR Foreign Minister Molotov, Mao proposed that “In order to satisfy China’s security needs, Mao requested that Indochina, the region along the Southern border of China, be turned into a buffer state under the Chinese influence.”

[4] Kissinger, Henry, 1999, “I, Henry”, Australian Financial Review, May.

[5] Dr. Canfield Roger, 2011, “Peace, Politics and Military Strategy, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq and China”. Presented at UN Symposium, Vietnam Centre, Texas Tech, March 12, 2011. www.americong.com

[6] Tuong Quang Luu,  AO, 2009, “Journeys from Vietnam: A Vietnamese Australian’s Reflection”. Speech delivered at The Sydney Institute, Sydney, Tuesday 3rd March, 2009. Tuong Quang Luu, a former Vietnamese diplomat, has provided an eye-witness account of how the Peace Movement contributed to the final communist victory in the denouement of the Vietnam War. He said “We all remember this writing on the wall at various places in capital cities of Australia: “For Peace in Vietnam, recognise the PRG”.

[7] Thayer, Carlyle, 1989, War By Other Means: National Liberation and Revolution in Vietnam, 1954-1960, Australia: Allen & Unwin Ltd. p. 15.

[8] Kissinger, Henry, 1999, Opcit. p.1. Kissinger wrote: “The strategy adopted by the Nixon administration to extricate America was foreshadowed in an article I had written for Foreign Affairs magazine while still a professor at Harvard [1955].”

[9] Ibid

[10] Ibid. Dr Kissinger even asserted that “We would not however, leave the country for which nearly 40,000 Americans had died by turning over to communist rule tens of millions who had staked their lives on our word.”

[11] Nixon, Richard, 1999, Victory Without War, New York: Simon & Schuster, p.108. The Nixon team blamed the Saigon tragedy on the anti-war movement, press bias, and Congress. According to President Richard Nixon, the Liberal Congress also made sure the manpower required for the program (Vietnamisation) would nerer come by the War Power Act in 1974, which legislated that US forces be pulled out of Indochina, even though “the law was not only unconstitutional but also unsound.” Also see Nguyen Ngoc Tan, 2012, The Vietnam War Revisited: A Revolutionary View of US Foreign Policy, Westminster: Vietnamese in Diaspora, p.120.

[12] Tapes recorded President Nixon’s conversations with Dr Kissinger were released in August 2004 by Miller Center of Public Affairs, Virginia University. President Nixon asked Dr Kissinger “Can we have a viable policy, in the case the North Vietnamese invaded South Vietnam within a year or two from now.” Dr Kissinger: “If in one or two years from now, the North took over the South, we can have a viable foreign policy if it’s a result of South Vietnam’s incompetence.” The time span stated in the conversation referred to the “decent interval” from the signing of the Paris Accords, January 1973 to the collapse of Saigon in April 1975.

[13]  Ibid

[14]  Ibid; also see Nixon, Richard, 1999.

 

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