Adam Fairclough, “Martin Luther King, Jr. and the War in Vietnam,” Phylon, Vol. 45, No. 1 (1984), p. 29; David J. Garrow, “When Dr. King Came Out Against Vietnam,” New York Times, April 4, 2017, p. A25; and Wells, The War Within, p. 131.
Masako Sakata, Agent Orange: A Personal Requiem (2003); Wilcox, Scorched Earth. Sakata’s film is a tribute to her husband, a Time Magazine photo-journalist with whom she travelled to Vietnam while Davis was himself dying of liver cancer caused likely by his exposure to the herbicide.
Don’t you remember your history? The last time the Chinese came, they stayed a thousand years. The French are foreigners. They are weak. Colonialism is dying. The white man is finished in Asia. But if the Chinese stay now, they will never go. As for me, I prefer to sniff French dung for five years than eat Chinese dung for the rest of my life.
In the aftermath of the Versailles Conference, Ho turned to socialist writings for inspiration, and to socialist and communist parties for support. Living in Paris, he read Vladimir Lenin’s “Thesis on the National and Colonial Questions” and came to the conclusion that “only Socialism and Communism can liberate the oppressed nations.” In 1920, Ho became a founding member of the French Communist Party. In the summer of that year, the Second Congress of the Communist International met in Petrograd and Moscow, and declared its support for anti-colonial revolutions, offering revolutionaries space for headquarters and limited funding. In 1930, Ho became a founding member of the Indochinese Communist Party.
In hindsight, Truman’s failure to respond to Ho’s entreaties was a tragic error. The Viet Minh were not beholden to the Soviet Union, and the Viet Minh’s egalitarian economic program posed no threat to the United States. Had Truman offered aid to Ho’s independent government, the French would likely have been deterred from re-imposing their control, which means that there would have been no First Indochina War, no U.S. involvement in that war, and no subsequent American War in Vietnam.
South Vietnam suffered in more ways. Some 1,200,000 people were forcibly relocated through “pacification” programs and five million became refugees between 1964 to 1975. The urban population swelled from 15 percent in 1964 to 40 percent in 1968, to 65 percent in 1974, undermining the social fabric of the country. Normally a rice exporter, South Vietnam had to import 725,000 tons of rice in 1967. Hunger and starvation were side effects of the war. The U.S. also conducted its chemical war in the south, spraying nineteen million gallons of toxins on five million acres, with some parts of North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia sprayed as well. The debilitating effects of this chemical war still linger.
The U.S. lost the war, but the NLF and Hanoi government can hardly be said to have won it. After initial euphoria, the Vietnamese came to terms with the war’s devastation. Ta Quang Thinh, a NVA nurse who was severely wounded in a B-52 bomb attack while on duty in the south, returned to the north in 1971. In an interview with Christian Appy many years later, he reflected:
The American War in Vietnam was not an equal war. No Vietnamese soldiers came to America to kill the political faction they did not like. No American cities were bombed. The war was fought in Vietnam, and mostly in the south. The U.S. transported 2.6 million Americans more than 7,700 miles from its Pacific coast to fight in Vietnam, the elusive goal being to save the Vietnamese from “communist domination.”
When I got home, I think everybody, including myself, was sick of the war. We abhorred it. It was not only cruel, it was absurd. Foreigners came to our country from out of the blue and forced us to take up arms. Don’t you think that’s absurd? We just wanted to be prosperous and live like other people. Of course we had to fight to protect our country but we were really sick of the war. Deep down we didn’t like it. Casualties were enormous. And not just that – our savings, our houses, our plants and animals, everything was wasted by that war.
Fighting in Vietnam nonetheless continued. In lieu of setting up unification elections, as stipulated in the Paris treaty, Thieu declared in November 1973 that the “Third Indochina War” had begun and went on the offensive. The NLF and NVA responded in kind, and with more success. Their final offensive to take Saigon was launched in March 1975. On April 2, Madame Nguyen Thi Binh, the Provisional Revolutionary Government representative who had signed the Paris treaty, offered to halt the NLF-NVA offensive if Thieu were replaced by a leader who would implement the terms of the Paris agreement. Thieu refused and lashed out against the NLF-NVA troops surrounding Saigon with every weapon at his command. The U.S. military, which came under the command of President Gerald Ford after Nixon was forced to resign on August 9, 1974 (due to the Watergate scandal), provided Thieu with monstrous 15,000-pound CBU-55 bombs originally intended to clear landing zones in the jungle.
Wilcox’s first book, Waiting for an Army to Die, chronicles the effects of Agent Orange on American veterans. Many became sick or died from diseases that normally do not afflict young men, including rare cancers, while others reported that their children were born with birth defects similar to those seen in the offspring of female laboratory animals exposed to dioxin. The veterans considered themselves to have been guinea pigs in scientific experiments by their own government. They brought a class action lawsuit in 1980 against the government and Monsanto, which was settled out-of-court in 1984 for $180 million dollars.
U.S. pilots also had to evade surface-to-air missiles and sometimes MiG-17s, which made precision bombing even less likely. North Vietnamese encryption specialists were often able to intercept American communications, resulting in foreknowledge of attacks. An estimated 900 U.S. warplanes were shot down or lost over North Vietnam during Operation Rolling Thunder. Luu Huy Chao, a North Vietnamese fighter pilot trained in China, personally shot down four U.S. aircraft with his twenty-year-old MiG-17, which flew half the speed of American F-105s but was more maneuverable. This earned him a meeting with Ho Chi Minh, who told him, “don’t be overconfident. You must be extra careful when you fight the Americans. They come from a very advanced country and their aircraft are much faster and more powerful. Even so we can deal with them if we keep up our spirit and never lose courage.”