Cruising to defeat
A major element in the rapid rise of the anti-war movement was that Johnson, unlike Kennedy, was not an eloquent communicator. He did not articulate the necessity to contain further Communist expansion in an inspiring way. He called those who opposed the war effort “nervous nellies” and left it at that. There were no Churchill-like speeches as in, “we will fight them in the beaches, fight them in the landing fields … never surrender.” Johnson simply assumed that traditional American anti-Communism would persevere.
Instead, the combined anti-war movement succeeded totally. It drained the morale of the Army and made it a less efficient fighting force. In fact, in the last year of combat, many American junior officers were being “fragged” by their own troops, assassinated via tossing a fragmentation grenade at them, if they were too aggressive in carrying out the fighting or if they merely had a grudge against them.
President Nixon reversed Westmoreland’s strategy of having the Americans do most of the fighting, and transferred the warfare back to the Vietnamese units, calling it “Vietnamization.” Some units did, in fact, become quite competent. But ultimately it was too late, and corruption continued to mar both the Army and the civil government.
On a personal note, I volunteered for the Army in 1967, and was assigned to the 101st Airmobile Division in Vietnam in July of 1968. By that time the sense of the anti-Communist crusade of the 1950s had faded from most of the soldiers. Ironically, one soldier I met that did have that sense was a Canadian who volunteered in the American Army because Canada was not fighting in Vietnam. In general, there was still a strong sense of duty, and having to live up to the standards of their fathers and uncles, that is, the veterans of World War II. Most often I heard a “country club” argument for accepting the draft and going to Vietnam. That is, that serving in the Army was the “dues” one paid for living in a good country club, the USA. The Left scoffed at any such arguments, but it is essentially similar to Socrates’ reasoning as to why he took the poison hemlock. Athens was good to him all of his life, and now must obey the law even when it turns against him.
The anti-war alliance ruined the chance of American churches uniting and praying for a successful resolution of the Vietnam War as they had done in World War II. That story, of the prayer campaign for World War II, has not been sufficiently told. In any case, the spiritual situation in the States was of chaos and conflict, as most churches could not unify in what to pray about.
The unhappy end
The war ended in April of 1975. This happened when the North Vietnamese Army launched a massive offensive and demolished the 1st ARVN Division, South Vietnams’ best fighting unit. Previously, during Easter 1973, the North Vietnamese has tried the same thing but were repulsed with very heavy casualties by the competent (even heroic) fighting of the South Vietnamese backed by American air power. But by 1975 Nixon had been forced out and President Ford had no political capital to order a reentry of American air support.
Many thousands of South Vietnamese tried to flee. The Chinese merchant class was especially fearful because of traditionally bad blood between North Vietnamese and Chinese. In fact, China and the united Vietnam, although both Communist countries, fought a nasty border war a few years later. Many Vietnamese government officials, army personnel, and others tried to leave in any way they could. They became the tragic “boat people” of the 1970s. Thankfully many were relocated in the United States. The tribal peoples scattered through the jungles of Indochina faired very badly. The North Vietnamese Army and Cambodian Khmer Rouge hated them and most did not survive the Communist take-over.
As Saigon fell, and the news footage showed desperate Vietnamese clinging to the last American helicopters, I thought, “Now will come a great massacre and genocide in Vietnam.” But on the whole, the Communist takeover of South Vietnam was merciful and avoided massacre. Captured army officers and government officials were gathered up and sent off to work camps where they did hard labor by day and indoctrinated into Communism by night. Most survived and were released to enter civilian life. Not bad for a Communist state, and certainly not what Stalin would have done.
South and North Vietnam were incorporated into one country, and the South was molded into a socialist economy just like the North with collective farms, central planning etc. That of course was a disaster to the economy and the years immediately after the reunification were years of great economic hardship, hunger and semi-starvation for both North and South Vietnam. That began to change as the Vietnamese, just as the Communist Chinese, realized that Soviet-style Communist economies did not work well and only a free market economy would bring prosperity. Vietnam has since developed a form of “crony capitalism” in which formed North Vietnamese Army generals run the profitable companies, but also has allowed the growth of independent companies.
The Cambodian Genocide
But a great genocide did indeed take place in Indochina, in Cambodia. We “Cold War warriors” turned out to be mostly right. Actually the genocide began well before the fall of South Vietnam. It was directed by the founder and leader of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot (1925-1998).
Pol Pot was a student in French colonial Cambodia, educated in Buddhist and Catholic school in Cambodia and scholarshiped to France for further education. In Paris he met and became part of a student Communist group and studied Marxism and the writings of Stalin and Mao, which he particularly liked.