Sunday, May 22, 2011

Vietnam & Iraq: Bitter Lessons of Backing The Right Horse In the Wrong War

(Portions originally published in November 2007)
The death last month of Madame Nhu aka the Dragon Lady, who was a lightning rod for all that was wrong with the U.S.-supported South Vietnamese regime, hree weeks before the death of John F. Kennedy in November 1963, another assassination of a president occurred halfway around the world -- the CIA-backed murder of Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam.

That assassination is a mere historic footnote, but it helped propel the U.S. into a decade-long quagmire that took 58,000 American lives and in some respects was a template for another failed war in Iraq. The similarities include an attempt to impose democracy on a society that is unprepared for it and divided along sectarian lines, as well as propping up a corrupt regime more focused on power mongering than national reconciliation.Kennedy was very much a free-thinking liberal, but he always put America's interests first.

As a young congressman, Kennedy had been a lonely voice in condemning U.S. military aid to colonialist France in its fight against the Communist Viet Minh Army in what was then called Indochina.

In April 1954, a few weeks before the French were expelled from Dien Bien Phu by the Viet Minh, Kennedy declared on the floor of the House:

"To pour men, material and money into the jungles of Indochina without at least a remote prospect of victory would be dangerously futile . . . no amount of American military assistance in Indochina can conquer an enemy which is everywhere, an enemy of the people, which had the sympathy and the covert support of the people."

Nevertheless, Kennedy rejected the
1954 Geneva Accords, which called for reuniting the Communist North with the U.S.-backed South, and believed that South Vietnam could not only survive but prosper as a democracy, and most importantly as a bulwark against the spread of Communism in Southeast Asia, with American moral and financial support.

Only a few weeks into his administration, Kennedy learned the hard way that meddling in another country's affairs could backfire after approving the disastrous CIA-backed Bay of Pigs Invasion against Fidel Castro. He vowed that the U.S. would not face similar humiliation in Vietnam.

Like Kennedy, Ngo Dinh Diem was a Roman Catholic, but South Vietnam’s first president was not exactly a poster boy for democracy.

As the Pentagon Papers, the top-secret report on U.S. involvement in Vietnam revealed, intelligence reports showed that Diem was an autocrat whose policies were alienating the Buddhist majority and helping the Communists, and that his hold on power was shaky.

Within weeks after the Cuba disaster, Kennedy acknowledged that pats on the back and America greenbacks weren't enough when he ordered 400 Special Forces troops to Vietnam and another 100 advisers to help train up the South Vietnamese military, as well as instituting a clandestine war against the Viet Minh and Viet Cong guerrillas in both the South and North and neighboring Laos.

Vice President Lyndon Johnson visited Vietnam shortly thereafter and met with Diem, calling him the "Churchill of Southeast Asia" in public but confiding to Kennedy in private that the U.S. would have to commit to further military action or get rid of Diem.

Kennedy rejected Diem's calls for a major infusion of American troops and air support, but the number of Special Forces and advisers grew steadily, as did the clandestine campaign, and by 1963 there were 16,000 Americans in-country and U.S. deaths were climbing into the hundreds.By the summer of 1963, something had to give.

Led by the president's corrupt brother Nhu and sister-in-law, the flamboyant Madame Nhu, the Diem regime was waging open warfare against South Vietnam's Buddhist majority. They made mass arrests and closed schools, prompting demonstrations, including one during which a monk set himself on fire on a crowded Saigon street, a public relations disaster in the States and abroad not unlike the backlash provoked by images from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq four decades later.

Sympathetic Kennedy biographers were to write that Diem's subsequent assassination was not in the script, but that appears to not have been the case because the president was not only privy to intimations that Diem was to be disposed of with U.S. help, but gave it his tacit approval.

Diem was advised by the U.S. to remove the Nhus from power but resisted. Then in August 1963, word reached Washington that a coup attempt was being planned against Diem and Nhu with the help of a CIA officer. Kennedy is said to have responded by declaring that there was "no turning back."

The first attempt was stillborn, but on November 1, Vietnamese Army soldiers loyal to a group of anti-Diem generals moved on the presidential palace, confronted Diem, demanded that he and the Nhus resign and offered them safe exit from the country. Diem called U.S. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. for help, but Lodge replied that the U.S. could take no action.

Diem and Nhu escaped through a secret tunnel under the palace and made their way to the Chinese district of Saigon where they were captured and killed under still murky circumstances.No federal law then or now criminalizes U.S. involvement in the assassination of a foreign official. While the involvement of the CIA in and White House approval of the plot against Diem may have been questionable, it was not illegal. Nor was his death the end of the U.S.'s problems.

Upon learning of the assassination, Ho Chi Minh is reported to have said, "I can scarcely believe the Americans would be so stupid." The North Vietnamese Politburo was more explicit, predicting:

Ho and his advisors understood what Kennedy and his advisors did not: Diem had been a powerful if unpleasant bulwark against Communism.

South Vietnam would never have another leader as strong nor a government as stable, and a succession of coups took place during the years after his death as the U.S. was inextricably drawn deeper and deeper into the fight against the Communists.

The U.S. had, in a sense, backed the right horse in the wrong war, and blind to the quagmire that awaited it, then helped kill the horse. The consequences, which may well have been the same had Diem continued to rule, included an end to the Democratic hegemony in Washington, over 58,000 American deaths and years of recriminations over a "lost" war.
Based in part on an article by Peter Kross
in the October 2004 issue of Vietnam Magazine.


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