LINH: Culture clash and communicationfailure

The view from inside the South Vietnamesegovernment

By Nguyen Ngoc Linh

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

From the very beginning of America‘s commitment in Vietnam, therewas a huge gap of understanding between Americans and Vietnamese that led fromone misunderstanding to another about each other’s intentions, good will,expectations and much else.

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

The understanding gap led to fateful decisions on theAmerican side, such as encouraging the Vietnamese generals to stage a coupagainst President Ngo Diem and hisbrother-adviser, which ended tragically in their deaths. This marked thebeginning of the end of South Vietnam in its fight against the invadersfrom the North.

Once President Johnson decided to send combat troops to helpSouth Vietnam,the American generals quickly took charge of the war. They fought aconventional war against communist insurgents who at first fought the only wayVietnamese knew how against a superior enemy, as guerrillas – disappearing onlyto reappear when the superior force moves on. The fact that the war often wasdirected from the White House only added another layer of intervention, whichtied the hands of generals in the field.

While the communist invaders and the local Viet Conginsurgents could roam all over the South, the American and South Vietnamesesides were not allowed to go north to bring the war to where it would hurt. Fora long time, they were not even allowed to go into Cambodia, where the NorthVietnamese withdrew whenever they needed rest and recuperation.

Even after President Nixon went to China and metwith Mao Zedong, the Americans were still leery of Chinese intervention shouldour side take the fight to North Vietnam. Thanks to documents recentlydeclassified, the Associated Press’ Calvin Woodward reported in 2006 that HenryKissinger, then national security adviser, told Prime Minister Chou En- something to the effect that “in my view, afterpeace is restored, the political orientation of what comes afterward is of noconcern to the U.S.” and that “if we can live with a communistgovernment in China, we ought to be able to accept it in Indochina.” Thispractically amounted to giving assurance that the United States would not engage in Vietnam after acommunist victory.

At the height of its engagement, the U.S. had ahalf-million troops in Vietnam.It had been suggested that had the Americans deployed those men on our side ofthe 17th parallel from the Ben River all the wayinto Laos and then mined the port of Phong, interdicting war supplies to the communists, theycould have choked off the Ho Chi Minh Trail, leaving it to the South Vietnamesearmed forces to take care of the guerrilla insurgents in the South – somethingwe could have handled without much difficulty. In fact, the Ho Chi Minh Trailcould have been cut off with far fewer troops. One study done at the time evensuggested 60,000 could have done the job.

With such a strategy, the U.S. would not have lost more than58,000 killed in action and untold numbers of wounded, and the antiwar movementnever would have had enough wind in its sail to pressure Congress to cut offall assistance to the South, leaving it defenseless.

The greatest irony of the Vietnam War was that when tired ofthe conflict, President Nixon thought of Vietnamizationas a way to put the whole burden on the South Vietnamese army. The word Vietnamization implies that during the entire 10 years ofmassive American intervention, the only ones fighting were the Americans, whilethe million or so Vietnamese troops and militia were sitting on their behindswatching the show.

Nothing could be further from the truth. While Americanbravery in places such as ,essentially a diversionary battle, was glorified in the American press, untoldbattles fought and won in places like An Loc, QuangTri and many other locations by the South Vietnamese armed forces were ignoredby American journalists, some of whom even had the temerity to call our heroicfighters “rabbits.” They predicted as early as 1968 that the end wasnear despite the fact that the communists suffered 40,000 casualties, or halfof the attacking force in their offensive of1968.

Those Vietnamese troops suffered nearly a half-millioncasualties while fighting to defend South Vietnam and, by somecalculation, killed four times as many communists.

America‘sVietnamization takeover stripped us of our just causeas we fought against the aggressors while reinforcing the communists’ claimthat they were patriots defending the motherland against imperialists and theirpuppets.

As far as the Vietnamese side was concerned, we also mademonumental mistakes. With the encouragement and even the blessing of thehighest-ranking American officials, our politically immature top-rankinggenerals staged a coup against a democratically elected president and murderedboth him and his brothers, and Can.

Yet, after seizing power, the generals were incapable ofgoverning the country and tried coups and countercoups against one another,thus sapping whatever energy remained in the country to fight the Viet Cong.

When the communists started their final push against PresidentNguyen Van Thieu, who managed the war from Independence Palace, he ordered the army to pull outof the 1st and 2nd Army Corps area of operations without planning, leading topanicked highways of death, clogged with refugees and evacuating troops underconstant communist attack. This tragic mistake accelerated the takeover of South Vietnam.

Our diplomatic representatives in the United Stateswere too busy trying to read the intentions of the American government andCongress instead of spending enough time cultivating meaningful publicrelations efforts aimed at the American public.

Truth wasn’t important. Even U.S. government officials could notdebate because they were too civilized when facing crowds that paraded in thestreets of America‘scapital under the flag of the enemy.

Inside South Vietnam, our information agencies were noteffective in countering the communist propaganda machine, which was quitepersuasive when combined with long daggers at night and death threats againstthe defenseless South Vietnamese population in the countryside.

From 1965 to 1972, I played an increasingly prominent rolein the South Vietnamese government’s communications efforts, eventually as amember of the Cabinet. I bear a share of responsibility for not having done mybest to persuade Thieu to send our best to the United Statesto confront the antiwar movement. Eventually, we did launch overseasinformation offices in Paris,London, Tokyo and Washington, but theycame too late to make a difference.

I hope others can learn from all these mistakes.

Nguyen Ngoc was head of South Vietnam’s National BroadcastingSystem, spokesman for the Prime Minister and, later, Director-General of Informationand Propaganda, then Press Officer for the South Vietnam Delegation to theParis Peace Talks.

Courtesy: The Washington Times

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