Did Two Million People Really Have to Die?

December 29, 2012

"Embers of War" : Did Two Million People Really Have to Die to 
Secure Vietnam'Independence as a Nation

I just finished reading one of the most sobering, saddening, maddening books of 
my life, "Embers of War". It tells the story of the overthrow of French colonial 
rule from 1945 to 1955, with this laying the seeds for the Vietnam War which 
continued until the mid-1970's.

Military deaths from these two conflicts numbered about two million; civilian 
deaths were far larger,
Of the military deaths, about one and a half million were North Vietnamese and 
Viet Cong; about 60,000 U.S;  and over 250,000 French, the rest mainly South 

Here is what makes this story so agonizing and illustrative of what can go wrong 
in decision making:

1. Ho Chi Minh beginning in the 1940's looked to the United States as a saviour. 
He saw the US standing for Freedom. It was not in his view trapped by a colonial 
past. He even took the words from our Declaration of Independence to introduce 
the constitution of the Democratic Vietnam Republic.

Ho Chi Minh collaborated closely with the OSS (earlier version of the CIA) as it 
launched expeditions to combat the Japanese while they were still in Vietnam. In 
fact, the OSS named him OSS agent#19!

2. President Roosevelt clearly saw that the era of colonialism was gone and he 
offered no support for France reclaiming Vietnam. And France had very little 
standing after WWII.

3. The playing field changed after Roosevelt's death. The allies became anxious 
to have France join the European defense coalition and the spectre of communism 
and a belligerent USSR and the Cold War added to the willingness to support 
France in its ambition to reclaim Vietnam and Laos and Cambodia.
The domestic scene, marked by will claims of communist infiltration by Senator 
McCarthy and others fueled this further. The French exploited this frenzy and 
slowly but surely Vitenam came to be a principle component of the domoino 
theory: if Vietnam went Communist so would all ofsoutheast Asia, the story went.

That Ho Chi Minh had had a long standing fear of the Chinese and was largely 
ignored by the USSR counted for almost nothing. Communism had become a bogey 
word, synonomous with being in bed with China and Russia. And this attitude 
became even more pronoumced when China routed Chiang Kai Chek as the 1950's 
began. Ho Chi Minh's repeated assertion that his driving force was independence, 
not communism was never accepted operationally though it was understood by many 
close to the situation. They could not make their POV stick. Repeated lettters 
from Ho Chi Minh to President Truman were not answered.

4. There were plenty of people, including Pierre Mendez France then a young 
member of the Radical Party, later to the be Prime Minister who took France out 
of the war, who saw that France  would not win this battle in a long conflict. 
That the only answer was a negotiated peace. Yet, step by step, the policy of 
fighting to achieve an outright victory continued, supported strongly and 
increasingly by the United States as the domino theory and unmodulated view of 
the "communist menace'" prevailed and carried the day.

For one year (1951) the French made progress as the Vietnam general Giap made 
his one major error being drawn into a full scal battle his army was not 
prepared to wage. This respite provided that type of illusory hope for victory 
that can be so dangerous in a business or anywhere leading one to continue down 
a path that has no sustainable route to victory. How this reminds me of the 9 
years we have spent in Afghanistan.

The war was fought mainly in the  North while increased Viet Kong guerrilla 
activity prevailed in the south and middle sections of the country. The Saigon 
area in Cochin remained securely in French hands.

5. I had no idea of how committed the US was to France hanging in there, while 
the British were more realistic on the inevitable income. After the truce in 
Korea (1953), many in France were even more skeptical of their country carrying 
the load of this fight (after the US had entered negotiations) but it made the 
US even more insisitent that Vietnam had to be the last line of defense. This 
puts a dark shadow for me on Eisenhower's reputation for being a peace maker.

Another irony: when after the horrible French surrender at Dien Bien Phu, after 
a prolonged siege, there was no recourse to enter negotiations to achieve a 
settlement, the US stood aside (in fact initially opposed the diivsion of the 
country into North and South). And then with a date for an election to be held 
as to whether and how to reunify the nation, the US opposed having the election 

We continued to back Ngo Diem, who initially we had seen for what he was, a 
weak, messianic leader, unable to identify with his people, impractical, then 
fell in love with, ultimately to overthrow, we allowed our dreams to turn into a 
warped view of what we though was real.

Three decades of misdirected, killing effort. Three decades to reach what could 
have emerged from the start if we had seen what was a natural course of giving 
this land the Freedom all lands deserve. Might it have ended up like Communist 
Cuba. A closed society, backward in its economic development?
Might it have evolved more like Tito's Yugolslavia, emerging into the modern 
world, not without horrible ethnic conflicts, but far less than afflicted 
No one can say. All one can say is the the path over three decades was one 
fraught with needless death, one in the second war (really only a continuation 
of the first) which ignored the lessons of history taught  by the first: namely 
that winning the hearts of people committed to independence and Freedom could 
not be won by bullets. 

And saddest of all in its own way, even if not involving nearly a many 
fatalities, we have committed the same error, ignoring history once again, in 

I cannot read this without recognizing how often these same factors have brought 
great harm to businesses. More on that later.

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