The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 1 No 6 - June 1970




A. L. Harington, M.A., senior lecturer in history at the University of South Africa, is a former student of the University of the Witwatersrand and history master at Parktown Boy's High School, Johannesburg. He is a contributor to the Dictionary of South African Biography and his MA. thesis on The Graham's Town Journal and the Great Trek is to be published shortly in the Archives Year Book. At present he is engaged in research for a doctorate at UNISA on Sir Harry Smith and South Africa, 1834-1852. In this work he will pay particular attention to Smith's role in the Frontier wars of 1834-1835, 1846-1847 and 1850-1852.

Recently members of the Johannesburg Military History Society and their guests heard a lecture on Vietnam by Mr. B. Chilvers. A profound and esoteric approach is neither necessary nor desirable for lectures of this nature, even when the subject, as it was on that occasion, is both topical and of crucial importance. But a fair, and as far as possible unbiased consideration of the entire subject, from all points of view, is essential. In my opinion Mr. Chilvers failed to do this. Consequently his address requires answering, all the more so since the greater part of his audience, apparently unaware of the complexity of the situation, the dangers inherent in it, or even of the possible existence of other points of view, seemed to be both impressed and in hearty agreement. As an academic historian I believe that truth is all-important; I also know that it is complex and elusive. However one of the most promising ways of pursuing it is by discussion and the juxtaposition of different views; this is why I am both anxious to answer Mr. Chilvers and glad to have the opportunity to do so.

I realise that Mr. Chilvers is himself anxious to see the war end. He thinks that the war can be won, and that the best way of doing this is to extend it to the north. He does not believe in limited war. At the same time, and in defiance of logic, he does not believe in using atomic weapons. Thus he advocates unlimited war with limited means! I was unable to discover whether his belief in unlimited war extends to contemplation of a possible attack on Russia and China. Logically it should, but since many people seem to find this hard to understand, explanation is necessary. Should the Americans extend their operations to North Vietnam one of two developments can follow: Vietnanuese resistance will collapse, and the United States will be left with the problem of what to do next, or, more likely, the Communist leaders will be driven underground, and guerilla resistance will continue. As regards the first and less likely situation it is worth remembering that as long ago as 1950 Secretary of State Dean Acheson remarked "that America could not by itself create politically stable states in Asia."(1) Asian willingness to accept Euro-American leadership has, of course, diminished still further during the intervening twenty years. One of the reasons for this diminution has been French and American policy and actions in Vietnam. But more of this later; I must return to the second and more likely of the possibilities mentioned above, i.e. that fighting will continue. Should that happen some American military and political leaders will soon begin to argue, quite correctly, that an effective way to deal with guerrillas is to destroy the sources of their supplies, and since these lie in China and in Russia ... Basically Mr. Chilvers is quite right; war, in the nature of things, is unlimited. I think, though, that he has gone astray by failing to accept or at least give sufficient consideration to all the implications and possible consequences, i.e. that a conceivable, even if improbable, end to the Vietnam conffict is the reduction of large areas of the U.S.S.R. and the U.S.A. to radioactive wastelands, even the destruction of humanity itself. Here I am taking the worst possible view of the matter. One of the most optimistic that I know of; one which concerns the U.S.A. alone, is an estimate that, providing all went as well as it possibly could, 50,000,000 Americans would die in the first minutes of a Russian attack. Another 50,000,000 would probably follow them in the course of the next few days. And the survivors, those of them who retained their sanity, many of them starving and genetically maimed, would, in Mr. Krushchev's memorable words, "envy the dead". They would also, it is true, be able to derive such comfort as is possible from the thought of the Russians in a similar condition. It is obvious that none of the values for which the United States purports to stand, and to a large extent does stand, would survive such a shock.

Many people reject forebodings such as these with derision. This is because destruction on such a scale is too horrible for them to comprehend and believe. Such things just don't happen, they are too dreadful to be possible. This reaction is much like that of healthy children confronted with the thought of their eventual deaths; it is not the product of reasoned thought but a revelation of innocence.

While the escalation of the Vietnam conflict into a third world war is admittedly improbable it is not necessarily highly improbable. An American in a good position to know better has asserted, jokingly, that he and his countrymen are "lovers, not fighters". A similar opinion, regarding Americans' military ability and inclinations, was once allegedly expressed by the late Hermann Goering, who thought that they were good for making refrigerators and little else. He lived just long enough to become fully aware of his mistake. Ohviously he knew nothing of the history of the United States, or of the character of the American people. Not only does their history reveal them as being quite as aggressive as any other people, it has convinced many Americans that aggression and the use of force pay. The British, French, Germans, Russians and Japanese have all had the salutary experience of defeat, which has made them dubious concerning the merit of war as a way of resolving man's disputes. The Americans' experience has been very different. For over a century there has been no fighting on the soil of the continental United States; its people consequently have no direct experience of what war means. Nor is this all. During the two centuries of their independence the Americans have fought no less than nine wars and won them all, with the possible exception of the Korean campaign. Even there, though the enemy was not defeated outright, he was denied his avowed objective. At the same time, during these two centuries, the United States has acquired unprecedented power and wealth; indeed there is a reciprocal relationship between this process and their military successes. The country owes its very existence to victory in war. The outcome of the American success story, in all its aspects and ramifications, has been to foster the dangerous illusion, among some Americans, that their country can do anything, except lose. For these people there is nothing undesirable about war in general or the extension of this one in particular. Fortunately, this view, the product of mingled ignorance, selfishness, xenophobia and chauvinism, is not held in the White House or, generally, in Congress. But frustration may eventually lead to impatience, and impatience to catastrophe.

All this constitutes one of the major reasons why, disagreeing with Mr. Chilvers, I think that the Vietnam war should be ended not by extending it but by withdrawing the American forces. I agree with what the late President Kennedy said about the South Vietnamese in September, 1963:
"In the final analysis it's their war -- they're the ones who have to win it or to lose it. We can help them, give them equipment. We can send our men out there as advisers, but they have to win it."(2)

"Advisers" -- let those who scoff reflect on how far the war has escalated, and on the nature of this progression. All too often it was believed that just one more step, one slightly more drastic measure, would bring victory.

Meanwhile the war rages on, its issue still in doubt (a doubt which Mr. Chilvers may or may not share), its consequences, actual, not possible, so far-reaching that they cannot easily be delineated. Nor can they readily be classified; in the modern world what affects the U.S.A. affects everyone else, and vice versa. None the less some attempt, however inadequate, must be made, beginning with such effects as mainly concern the U.S.A.

Money is being wasted on such a scale that even the resources of the United States are slightly strained. Not only is the dollar weakened, money and attention have been diverted from the country's internal problems, notably those concerning the preservation of an optimum environment, metropolitan decay and deteriorating race relations. All of these, esperially the last two, are connected, and the delay in giving them effective attention is part of the price of Vietnam. Still worse is the effect of the war on the moral fibre of the American people, on the quality of American society. In Vietnam itself thousands of young American men are being hardened and brutalized in a war of the most soul-destroying type, an ideologically motivated guerilla struggle, where the friend of today is the foe of tomorrow, or of tonight. Hence the atrocities which may have been committed by U.S. troops; possibly men who have been involved in large-scale murder are now back in American civil society, their very presence damaging it. It is to the credit of the U.S. authorities that they are prepared to investigate the possibility of such affairs and atrocious behaviour; those who think that this is mistaken policy range themselves with Nazis and Communists.

American society has not only been damaged, it is becoming divided; one side ever more impatient and callous, while on the other, national self-regard diminishes, shame and cynicism increase. Everywhere there is frustration. Nor is this all; some Negro Americans see the war as further evidence of a world-wide colour clash, in which they are involved. Their resulting conduct and actions heighten racial tension.

As is well known, television has brought the war into American living-rooms. The result has been to enrage some, and disgust and dismay others. It has further lowered regard for life, and also increased a growing reluctance to accept a casualty rate, which, despite irrelevant misleading comparisons with traffic deaths, is still heavy. Another reason for this reluctance, of course, is an increasing realization that the U.S. is fighting a futile and an immoral war. At the same time the power and the influence of the military have been getting larger, so that although there is as yet no privileged officers' class like that of the Kaiser's Germany, the United States is becoming more militaristic. Contributing to this undesirable development is the fact that many American civilians' jobs now depend on the regular placing of orders for the sophisticated electronic devices and modern weapons which, so far, have failed to bring victory. The preservation of that un-American institution, "the draft", has also furthered the influence of the military establishment.

So much for the unfortunate and pernicious effects of the Americans' presence in Vietnam on their own country and themselves. In Asia, and as regards international affairs, the situation is as bad. In the struggle for the mind of "the third world" Americans are doing themselves and their cause infinite harm. This is a great pity, for the United States is itself a product of man's desire for freedom, and its cause, in the last resort, is the maintenance and extension of that freedom. The U.S.A., despite genuine and laudable attempts to do the impossible, i.e. create a new, stable, democratic state in South Vietnam, is, quite understandably, being written off by Asians as a racialistic, reactionary, colonialistic power, while her great rival and opponent, the U.S.S.R., an infinitely inferior society, politically barbaric, and a genuine imperial power, is able to pose, smugly, as a champion of liberty. The only thing which the United States could do, to blacken its Asian reputation still further, would be to use atomic weapons in Vietnam. As it is, Communists are able to point out that the U.S.A. is the only country which has ever used atomic weapons, and that it used them only on its Asian enemy.

The retort to all this is that, even if it were true, withdrawal would lead to a worse situation. American prestige would be damaged beyond repair, while all of south-east Asia would be lost, country by country, to the Communists. This is possibly true, though not inevitable. In Indonesia, for example, events did not follow this course, while France has gained prestige and many other benefits since realistically facing defeat and quitting Algeria. The United States, on the other hand, is not gaining prestige; it is losing it, in the eyes of those who regard it as being in the wrong, and of those who are amused and delighted at a small Asian people's defiance of the greatest world and Western power. An admission of error would do less harm; it would probably do some good.

While the illusion that the United States is omnipotent makes it difficult for Americans to face reality in Vietnam, their original involvement was due to the mistaken idea that they would be confronting international Communism. Those responsible for the formulation of American policy in Asia have failed to distinguish between international Communism, the aim of which was the establishment of a world state, and various sorts of extreme Socialism, which may conveniently be called "national Communism". International Communism, Communism of the classic type, probably never formed part of practical Russian policy, and is now finished, as witness the split between Russia and China, and the outrageous measures to which the Russians have been compelled to resort in eastern Europe. Various forms of national Communism may spread over much of the third world, though such a development would not necessarily be dangerous to the West, given the correct response. This is not to impose discredited, corrupt and reactionary dictators upon resentful people, it is to promote reform; it means finding a middle path between "aid without strings" and vain attempts to enforce the unsuitable and the unwanted. Above all, it is necessary to realise that in much of the undeveloped world, forms of socialistic theory and nationalistic emotion are inextricably intertwined, and that of these two forces nationalism is much the more potent. It is Vietnamese nationalism which the Americans are mistakenly trying to quell, and it is nationalistic emotion rather than Communistic theory which has kept the Vietnamese fighting for so many years, first against the French, with total success, and now against an infinitely more formidable enemy.

The Americans' error is all the more unfortunate in that it drives the nationalists of North Vietnam to closer reliance on their old enemies, the Chinese, where the mixture of Communism and nationalism already referred to has a strong element of imperialism. As if all this were not enough it also prevents the split between Moscow and Peking from widening, and thus destroying such vestiges of international or supra-national Communism as still exist. If there is one thing holding Russia and China together it is the conviction that the presence of United States forces in Vietnam is a threat to their security. Their point of view will be more easily understood if one imagines what the American reaction would be to the presence of Chinese forces, in action, in Mexico. So it is hardly surprising that Russia and China help North Vietnam by all means short of war, just as the United States helped Britain by all means short of war in 1940 and 1941. That is why they are determined that the United States shall not win in Vietnam, and that is why, if those Americans who are determined on victory have their way, they may well have to reckon with the only two states whose power, actual or potential, can be compared with their own. That, ultimately, is why we are in great danger, though it is diminishing.

Of course the Americans are making a praiseworthy attempt to initiate and promote political, economic and social reform in South Vietnam, but their own presence in that country, in arms, is undoing most of the possible good. They must withdraw their forces, with all deliberate speed. If a revived and strengthened South then holds its own or even triumphs over the North (if in other words, the Americans' creation is accepted by part of all of the Viet- namese people), well and good. If; as seems more probable, the whole country were united in some form of Vietnamese Communism, the danger confronting the West and the world would still be less, not greater, than it is today. At the same time the United States's moral stature, international reputation and internal condition would all benefit immensely. The discomfiture of those with vested interests in the war, such as the military and various manufacturers, would be a small price to pay.

Human affairs are exceedingly complicated. Any knowledge of history, other than the most superficial, is enough to make one realise that the right is seldom, if ever, the sole prerogative of one side to a dispute. There are no stark blacks and whites, only a vast number of shades of grey, merging imperceptibly into each other. Naturally at different times, in different situations, various nations, institutions, individuals and ideas are less grey than others. This is why I am distressed at the spectacle presented by the United States, a country which I admire very much, applying a dangerous and immoral policy, with well-deserved lack of success.

What distressed me about Mr. Chilvers's address was the fine finality of his oversimpliflcations. The (possibly mistaken) impression which I got is that he regards international politics as a struggle between virtue and vice. Actually the phenomena and events which we know by that convenient label constitute a major aspect of the development of humanity, at present passing through a perilous and critical phase. This being so the subject is the concern of us all, not just a few specialists. However, failure to approach it in a disinterested spirit results in harm rather than good.


1. As reported in Vietnam, M. E. Gettleman, ed., Penguin Press, Harmondsworth, 1966, p.414.

2. Loc. cit.

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