They say pictures speak a thousand words. Countless accounts have been written about the Vietnam War but it is seeing vivid images of civilians caught up in the conflict – like ordinary peasants massacred by US forces – that truly help understand the human cost of the military occupation.
The portraits on display at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City remind us that of the three million Vietnamese people killed during the war, two million of the victims were civilians. And as well as using lethal weapons, the Americans also dropped toxic chemicals (some 80 million litres between 1961 and 1971 alone) on towns and villages across the country, some of which were so harmful that they had a devastating impact on people’s lives for many years even after the fighting had finished.
Seeing pictures at the museum of babies and children born with visible deformities created by the dangerous toxins was particularly disturbing. I visited as part of wider guided tour, but my guide told that he was not permitted to speak in the galleries, partly out of respect, yet also so he could not be accused of adding his own interpretation to the conflict. Some have accused some parts of the museum as being one-sided and biased to Vietnam, yet the facts of the war, however, speak for themselves. Indeed, a 1970s Pentagon investigation, which was reported by the Los Angles Times in 2006, found evidence that every US army division to serve in Vietnam between 1965 and 1973 committed war crimes.
Most people think of the Vietnam War as a 20th century conflict, but more than one person in Ho Chi Minh City I spoke to believed that in reality the war of independence stretched back to the mid 19th century when the French seized power. Symbols from France’s rule remain today, not least Notre Dame Cathedral, consecrated in 1880 and built in the Romanesque style using materials shipped over from Europe. It stands opposite the expansive Central Post Office, built by colonialists between 1886 and 1981, and is a popular tourist attraction today. On one wall there is a large-scale painted map depicting the telegraph lines in Southern Vietnam and Cambodia in 1892, while another shows the (much smaller than today) city of Saigon in the same year.
But – interesting as the French colonial period was – it was the conflict after the Second World War that was particularly bloody and therefore demands proper examination.
Conflict with the US
The Marxist Ho Chi Minh, who led a broad-based nationalist movement called the Vietminh, was able to take advantage of the power vacuum left by the surrender of Japan (which had had a major role in the region since 1940) at the end of the Second World War. Independence was declared from France in 1945, but the fighters had there work cut out to survive until the 1950s when were given arms and supplies by the new Chinese government.
With Vietnam backed by Beijing, the French seemed to lose the will to fight on and the Geneva Accords of 1954 temporarily divided the country into two. Elections were due to be held in 1956, but they were blocked by the US because they worried the Viet Minh would get the whole country and the rest of the region would fall to communists like dominos. The 1954 line remained – Ho consolidated his power in North Vietnam, where a brutal social-state developed, while a US-backed administration was installed in the south.
South Vietnam, which was run by the anti-communist Ngo Dinh Diem, was “an artificial state kept alive by massive transfusions of American aid; it was effectively a US colony, though Washington balked at the hated word,” according to the historian David Reynolds. The Eisenhower administration injected more than $1 billion of economic and military assistance, but Diem “had no blueprint for a modern, post-colonial state” and the opposition he created inspired the formation of the guerrilla movement, the Viet Cong.
When John Kennedy became US president in 1961 he resisted the pressure to send US combat troops to South Vietnam, instead choosing to increase aid and military advisers. But he gave up his support for Diem when the devout Catholic ordered a crack-down on the Buddhist majority which brought about mass protests. Kennedy reluctantly supported a military coup, however he was apparently upset that South Vietnamese leader was shot dead, rather than removed in a more peaceful way.
But the coup did nothing to bring stability to South Vietnam, with six governments failing between November 1963 and June 1965 and the Viet Cong taking effective control of half of all territory in the US-backed area. Following President Johnson’s inauguration and the decision to take a more active role in the region, the US embarked on a bombing campaign of North Vietnam and its first combat troops were sent across the border. In Saigon, the new prime minister Nguyen Cao Ky, who was installed as part of a new military government in July 1965, said Hitler was his hero “because he pulled his country together.”
The 1987 comedy, Good Morning Vietnam, portrays Saigon in 1965 heaving with US troops. Many of the soldiers were seen to be having a great time, enjoying drinks at GI only bars, but the threat of the Viet Cong was very real in the city, with regular bomb attacks creating casualties. The film tells the story of how an irreverent DJ, Adrian Cronauer (played by Robin Williams) was brought in by the army to host a morning radio show. US troops liked his risqué jokes and lively music. The output had previously consisted of been boring announcements about where to get library books and dates for posting Christmas cards. But in a signal of how worried his superiors were about the stability of the country Cronauer was reprimanded for reading out news which had not been approved by the US military.
By the end of 1967 there were nearly 500,000 US troops in Vietnam and some 16,000 of the nation’s soldiers had already died, prompting anti-war sentiment to be growing back home. But in North Vietnam, morale amongst civilians, who had been issued with some 20 million bomb shelters, was apparently holding up and factories were simply being re-built away from towns and cities.
And then on the Vietnamese New Year holiday of Tet on January 30th 1968, Washington was, according to Time magazine, “shocked and stunned” by a major offensive on towns and cities in the south by North Vietnam’s regular army, as well as Viet Cong guerillas. “To a capital lulled by repeated boasts that the military war was being won, the strength and duration of the Red offensive came as an unpleasant, even humiliating surprise,” the report said.
Numerous Viet Cong activists died in the weeks following the Tet offensive, but for the Hanoi government it provided a propaganda boost. The US military said that more troops were needed to end what had essentially become a stalemate. But then President Johnson – who struggled to sleep at night because he was so troubled by the events in Vietnam – was given a damning assessment by his defence secretary Clark Clifford:
“We are not sure that a conventional military victory, as commonly defined can be achieved…. We seem to have gotten caught in a sinkhole. We put in more, they match it… I see more and more fighting in sight with more and more casualties on the US side, and no end in sight.”
When President Nixon took office in 1968 he inherited a conflict that was costing $30 billion a year and taking the lives of 200 Americans every week. He had a simple message: “I’m going to stop that war. Fast.” But by the time Ho died in September 1969, little progress had been made in negotiations with the communists.
Nixon believed that it was essential to create division between China and Russia given that between them they backed the US’s enemies across the world. “We’re doing the China thing to screw the Russians and help us in Vietnam,” he said privately. Nixon’s visits to Beijing in 1972 and later Moscow represented huge breakthroughs in the global Cold War.
Negotiations continued. “We are willing to withdraw military forces,” Henry Kissinger, then Nixon’s National Security Advisor, told the Soviets. “We are prepared to reduce aid if our opponents are willing to reduce aid. This would then leave the struggle to the Vietnamese…”
In January 1973 Nixon finally announced a peace deal in which all US troops would leave Vietnam and elections could be held, so that the people of South Vietnam could determine their own future at the ballot box. But without the US military, propping up the country’s president and his government, it was left very vulnerable to attack.
Fall of Saigon
If you’ve seen the musical Miss Saigon at the theatre, perhaps you will recall that the most memorable scene is when a life-size helicopter lands on the stage to evacuate the last of the Americans from Saigon, just as the city was about fall. Its based on real-life events when two years after US troops officially left, the North Vietnamese launched a major offensive which culminated in the capture of the capital of South Vietnam. In torrential rain, the US ambassador and government employees were evacuated from the roof top of 22 Gia Long Street, a building at near the embassy, on the 29th April 1975.
The following day, at 10:45am, the gates of Independence Palace were bulldozed by the North Vietnamese army and the liberation flag was raised. The very tank that headed up this charge, which has become a memorable episode in world history, still stands in the grounds of the sprawling building. Its cordoned off in an attempt to stop visitors clambered on top of it and damaging the relic, yet the people I saw there were happy to respect the line of the rope and be photographed in front of it.
The palace itself was re-named Reunification Palace after the war, but doesn’t today have an official role given that the unified government sits in Hanoi. Its used, however, for many functions and is an interesting place to visit if you want to get a sense of what was life was like for officials in the dying days of Saigon. The rooms have been left as they were when the government South Vietnam government fled in 1975, complete with Cold War era maps and old fashioned telephones.
Built between 1963 and 1966, a sizeable number of the rooms are actually in an underground bunker which is lined with extremely thick walls. You can see where the president would have slept when it wasn’t safe for him to be above ground. Then there are the map and telecommunications rooms where the war effort would have been led from. You could easily spend a day exploring this underground space alone, such is the extent of the facilities.
But when it was safe to be in the main palace quarters, there was plenty to keep the president and his family entertained. The top floors were given over to a private cinema, a discotheque, a games room with mini bar and a library. Reception and dining rooms for entertaining important dignitaries were lavishly decorated and furnished. And in the president’s private quarters, there were two bedrooms on opposite sides of the courtyard, which he used on alternate nights it an attempt to make it harder for enemy bombers to target him. Although the president’s sleeping quarters weren’t hit, in the end the weakened South Vietnam government could withstand pressure from North Vietnamese no longer and in 1975 Saigon fell.
After Vietnam was “re-unified,” the government would like the world to believe that it became one happy country. But there was considerable repression against those that had lived in South Vietnam, forcing many to flee abroad (particularly people who had served in the government) and others found themselves in refugee camps, in many cases for up to 15 years. Some have estimated that 90% of the population living in Ho Chi Minh City either lived or have descendants from the old North Vietnam, but headed south to enjoy a more free way of life.