Culture Clash and Communication Failure; the View from Inside the South Vietnamese Government

Article excerpt


Since the fall of Saigon, I have had 35 years to think about what went wrong. Even before that fateful April 1975, I had had 10 years of government service to witness the mistakes of American and Vietnamese leaders responsible for managing the war.

From the very beginning of America's commitment in Vietnam, there was a huge gap of understanding between Americans and Vietnamese that led from one misunderstanding to another about each other's intentions, good will, expectations and much else.

Indeed, Americans, with their gung-ho, can-do, task-oriented attitude, had the tendency to take control in their partnership with the Vietnamese, even at the risk of stepping on our toes. The Vietnamese, proud of their Confucian traditions and steeped in a millennial historical consciousness, resisted and even ignored advice from pushy American advisers and condescending commanding generals.

The understanding gap led to fateful decisions on the American side, such as encouraging the Vietnamese generals to stage a coup against President Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother-adviser, which ended tragically in their deaths. This marked the beginning of the end of South Vietnam in its fight against the invaders from the North.

Once President Johnson decided to send combat troops to help South Vietnam, the American generals quickly took charge of the war. They fought a conventional war against communist insurgents who at first fought the only way Vietnamese knew how against a superior enemy, as guerrillas - disappearing only to reappear when the superior force moves on. The fact that the war often was directed from the White House only added another layer of intervention, which tied the hands of generals in the field.

While the communist invaders and the local Viet Cong insurgents could roam all over the South, the American and South Vietnamese sides were not allowed to go north to bring the war to where it would hurt. For a long time, they were not even allowed to go into Cambodia, where the North Vietnamese withdrew whenever they needed rest and recuperation.

Even after President Nixon went to China and met with Mao Zedong, the Americans were still leery of Chinese intervention should our side take the fight to North Vietnam. Thanks to documents recently declassified, the Associated Press' Calvin Woodward reported in 2006 that Henry Kissinger, then national security adviser, told Prime Minister Chou En-lai something to the effect that in my view, after peace is restored, the political orientation of what comes afterward is of no concern to the U.S. and that if we can live with a communist government in China, we ought to be able to accept it in Indochina. This practically amounted to giving assurance that the United States would not engage in Vietnam after a communist victory.

At the height of its engagement, the U.S. had a half-million troops in Vietnam. It had been suggested that had the Americans deployed those men on our side of the 17th parallel from the Ben Hai River all the way into Laos and then mined the port of Hai Phong, interdicting war supplies to the communists, they could have choked off the Ho Chi Minh Trail, leaving it to the South Vietnamese armed forces to take care of the guerrilla insurgents in the South - something we could have handled without much difficulty. In fact, the Ho Chi Minh Trail could have been cut off with far fewer troops. One study done at the time even suggested 60,000 could have done the job.

With such a strategy, the U.S. would not have lost more than 58,000 killed in action and untold numbers of wounded, and the antiwar movement never would have had enough wind in its sail to pressure Congress to cut off all assistance to the South, leaving it defenseless.

The greatest irony of the Vietnam War was that when tired of the conflict, President Nixon thought of Vietnamization as a way to put the whole burden on the South Vietnamese army. …