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Guest Column

A different type of tour, a very different Vietnam

By THEODORE L. GATCHEL | Published: April 21, 2011

On Christmas Day last year, I received an unexpected present: an invitation to accompany a Brown University alumni tour of Vietnam as the tour’s lecturer. I accepted and began to practice my Vietnamese, something that I had not done since attending language school in 1968 and spending a year with the Vietnamese Marines in 1969-70.

I also began to refresh my knowledge of Vietnamese history and culture to prepare the three lectures that I was expected to give during the tour. I was knowledgeable about modern Vietnam, but my understanding of its earlier history was thin, to say the least.

The more I studied, the more I wondered if our senior leaders during the war might have made different decisions had they known more about the Vietnamese.

The North Vietnamese attack across the demilitarized zone in 1972 that Americans know as the Easter Offensive was called the Nguyen Hue campaign by the North Vietnamese. Nguyen Hue was a Vietnamese general who defeated a large Chinese army near Hanoi in 1788. He attacked during the lunar New Year holiday known as Tet in Vietnam. Believing that no one would violate such a traditional time of peace, the Chinese were unprepared for battle. Had Americans been aware of the legacy of Nguyen Hue, perhaps we would not have been caught as flat-footed as we were when the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese launched a major attack throughout South Vietnam during Tet of 1968.

After the 1973 Peace Accords and the withdrawal of U.S. forces and advisers, American veterans would sometimes claim that we had not really lost the war because we had won all the battles. Although largely true, such claims reveal a basic misunderstanding about the relationship between tactics and strategy.

That misunderstanding was vividly demonstrated when our group visited the Citadel in Hue. Constructed in the early 19th century, the Citadel was a massive fortification designed to protect the Forbidden City, the home of the Vietnamese emperors.

During Tet of 1968, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops captured the Citadel and raised a large Viet Cong flag over it to celebrate their victory. U.S. Marines and South Vietnamese troops fought for 25 days and suffered heavy casualties before they recaptured the Citadel and replaced the enemy flag with that of the Republic of Vietnam. The first thing that a visitor sees today at the Citadel is a huge red flag with a yellow star, the North Vietnamese flag in 1968 and the flag of a united Vietnam today. It leaves no doubt as to who won the war.

The North’s ultimate victory in 1975 began with a massive armored attack across the DMZ and ended with a Chinese model 59 tank carrying a Viet Cong flag crashing through the gates of the Presidential Palace in Saigon.

Although the North Vietnamese initially let the South retain much of its market-oriented economy, they rapidly united the two parts of the country and formed a single-party government under the Communist Party of Vietnam.

They then imposed on the South the same type of doctrinaire, state-controlled economic system that had existed in the north since 1954. Not unexpectedly, communism as an economic system failed in Vietnam, as it has wherever it has been tried. Forced to work on collective farms, rice farmers had little incentive to produce. Production fell to the point that Vietnam was forced to import rice to feed its people.

Former South Vietnamese officials were sent to “re-education” camps, and an estimated 2 million citizens risked their lives to flee the country. In response, most communist governments would probably have cracked down even harder. The Vietnamese, on the other hand, took a step that must have galled hard-line Communists at the time.

In 1986, the Vietnamese Communist Party announced a program of Doi Moi or “renovation.” Under Doi Moi, Vietnam would retain its one-party Communist government but shift to a largely free-market economy.

The results of that decision are impossible to miss. In Danang, for example, adjacent to the airstrip where Marine helicopters were once based, stands an array of beach resorts, casinos and condos that rival any in the world.

The first thing one sees after arriving at the airport at Saigon — officially Ho Chi Minh City, but still called Saigon by many locals — are not just thousands of motor scooters, but also many Mercedes, BMWs and other luxury cars. The city is a fascinating mix of sidewalk vendors and food stands, and world-class shops, restaurants and hotels.

Under Doi Moi, thousands of private businesses have been created, and the economy has grown to the point where Vietnam is now the world’s second largest exporter of rice.

In many ways Vietnam looks today as I hoped it would when I left after my second tour in 1970. All that is missing is political freedom to match its economic system. My hope is that one will lead to the other. If so, those of us who fought there so long ago will be able to say, we won the battles, they won the war, but we both won the peace.

Marine Corps Col. Theodore L. Gatchel (retired) is a military historian and a professor emeritus of operations at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. The views here are his own. This column first appeared in The Providence (R.I.) Journal.