AMERICA HAD no business fighting in Vietnam; our long struggle there was misguided at best, criminal at worst. So runs the conventional wisdom on the Vietnam War, and much of the commentary marking the 25th anniversary of Saigon's fall made a point of reinforcing that bleak view.
Refugees fled South Vietnam, often in perilous, overcrowded boats, following the communist takeover in 1975.
But we were not wrong to fight in Vietnam. If our allies were far from perfect, our enemies -- Hanoi and the Viet Cong -- were homicidal fanatics. Like all Stalinists, they were prepared to shed rivers of blood for the sake of power and ideological orthodoxy. Communists are mass murderers, and Ho Chi Minh was an ardent communist.
Long before we arrived in South Vietnam, Ho had turned the North into an abattoir. In the 1940s, his noncommunist competitors were savagely cut down. After he won power in 1954, the slaughter increased. "Better 10 innocent deaths," Ho's Communist Party taught, "than one enemy survivor." Hundreds of thousands of North Vietnamese were killed as "class enemies" and "counterrevolutionaries." During Hanoi's brief occupation of Hue in 1968, thousands of citizens -- priests, doctors, bureaucrats -- were butchered. It was not to satisfy some imperial craving that America went to war in Vietnam. It went to save the South from murder.
The conventional wisdom speaks in a loud voice. But there are other voices.
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In Tonkin [North Vietnam], Ho Chi Minh had not stretched out his hand to the Nationalists: He had ordered them to be massacred…. Thousands, maybe tens of thousands of men had been liquidated in 1945, 1946, and later -- always in spectacular numbers, as though the communists wanted to destroy not only their bodies but even their memory. The intention was that horror and dread should extinguish the last trace of respect for them among the masses; their execution had to be both shameful and terrifying. That was the reason for the mass executions of hundreds at once, the fields of prisoners buried alive, the harrows dragged over men buried up to the neck. It was a calculated annihilation…
-- Lucien Bodard, The Quicksand War (1967)
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Thousands of innocent Vietnamese, many whose only crimes are those of conscience, are being arrested, detained, and tortured in prisons and "re-education" camps. Instead of bringing hope and reconciliation to war-torn Vietnam, your government has created a painful nightmare… We have heard the horror stories from the people of Vietnam…. People disappear and never return…. People are used as human mine detectors, clearing live mine fields with their hands and feet. For many, life is hell and death is prayed for….
-- From an open letter to the Republic of Vietnam, published by Joan Baez and 84 other former antiwar activists in 1979
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We, the prisoners of Vietnam, ask the International Red Cross, humanitarian organizations throughout the world, and all men of goodwill to send us cyanide capsules as soon as possible so that we can put an end to our suffering ourselves. We want to die now! Help us to carry out this act, and help us kill ourselves as soon as possible. We would be eternally in your debt.
-- From a plea by 48 prisoners of the communist regime, circulated orally in the jails of Ho Chi Minh City between 1975 and 1977
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New Left orthodoxy had scorned the idea that the war was about North Vietnamese aggression and Soviet expansion, but soon after the US pullout, North Vietnamese armies were in Cambodia and Laos, and the Russians were occupying the bases at Cam Ranh Bay and Da Nang…. What we had dismissed as impossible was happening with dizzying speed…. The "bloodbath" our opponents predicted took place in the form of tens of thousands of summary executions, while many of the "indigenous" revolutionaries of the NLF … disappeared into "re-education" camps or joined the boat people…. In Cambodia, 2 million peasants died at the hands of the communist Khmer Rouge, proteges of Hanoi…. It was a daunting lesson: More people had been killed in the first two years of the Communist peace than in the 13 years of America's war.
-- Peter Collier and David Horowitz, Destructive Generation (1989)
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Those of us who opposed the American war in Indochina should be extremely humble in the face of the appalling aftermath: a form of genocide in Cambodia and horrific tyranny in both Vietnam and Laos. Looking back on my own coverage for The Sunday Times … I think I concentrated too easily on the corruption and incompetence of the South Vietnamese and their American allies, was too ignorant of the inhuman Hanoi regime, and far too willing to believe that a victory by the Communists would provide a better future. But after the Communist victory came the refugees to Thailand and the floods of boat people desperately seeking to escape the Cambodian killing fields and the Vietnamese gulags. Their eloquent testimony should have put paid to all illusions.
-- William Shawcross, "Shrugging off genocide," The Times of London, Dec. 16, 1994
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I think the wrong guys won.
-- Senator John McCain, in Ho Chi Minh City last week
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe. His website is www.JeffJacoby.com).
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