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Posts Tagged ‘Vietnam’

El pasado martes 16 de marzo ocho personas fueron asesinadas en Georgia. Desafortundamente, este tipo  de eventos son comunes en Estados Unidos. Lo que hizo especial estas muertes es el hecho que seis de las  víctimas eran mujeres asiáticas. Esto ha activado las alarmas de  aquellos preocupados con el aumento en la violencia contra los asiático-estadounidenses producto de los efectos de la pandemia y, en especial, por el incremento de la retórica antichina en Estados Unidos. Desde el inicio de la pandemia se han registrado  3,800 casos de discriminación contra los asiáticos. Según el Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, el número de crímenes de odio antiasiáticos estadounidenses reportados a la policía aumentaron un 149% entre 2019 y 2020.

La violencia contra los asiáticos no es un fenómeno nuevo en al historia estadoundisense. Basta recordar el trato que recibieron los miles de chinos que llegaron a Estados Unidos en el siglo XIX para construir ferrocarriles. A los chinos les toca el honor de ser el único pueblo al que se le negó al acceso a Estados Unidos a través de una ley aprobada por el Congreso en 1882.

Comparto esta breve nota publicada en la revista The Nation sobre la violencia contra los asiático y su vínculo con el desarrollo imperial de Estados Unidos.


 

Long before anxiety about Muslims, Americans feared the “yellow peril” of Chinese  immigration

Un anuncio de jabón de la década de 1880, subtitulado ‘The Chinese Must Go’. Biblioteca del Congreso

Anti-Asian Violence in America Is Rooted in US Empire

Christine AhnTerry K Park and Kathleen Richards

The Nation   March, 19, 2021

Shortly after the mass killing in Georgia—including six Asian women—earlier this week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken denounced the violence, saying it “has no place in America or anywhere.” Blinken made the comments during his first major overseas trip to Asia with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, where Blinken warned China that the United States will push back against its “coercion and aggression,” and Austin cautioned North Korea that the United States was ready to “fight tonight.”

Yet such hawkish rhetoric against China—which was initially spread by Donald Trump and other Republicans around the coronavirus—has directly contributed to rising anti-Asian violence across the country. In fact, it’s reflective of a long history of US foreign policy in Asia centered on domination and violence, fueled by racism. Belittling and dehumanizing Asians has helped justify endless wars and the expansion of US militarism. And this has deadly consequences for Asians and Asian Americans, especially women.

Anti-Asian violence through US foreign policy has manifested in the wars that have killed millionstorn families apart, and led to massive displacement; in the nuclear tests and chemical weapons storage that resulted in environmental contamination in Okinawa, Guam, and the Marshall Islands; in the widespread use of napalm and Agent Orange in VietnamLaos, and Korea; in the US military bases that have destroyed villages and entire communities; in the violence perpetrated by US soldiers on Asian women’s bodies; and in the imposition of sanctions that result in economic, social, and physical harms to everyday people.

File:Filipino casualties on the first day of war.jpg - Wikipedia

Trincheras filipinas, 1899

These things can’t happen without dehumanization, and this dynamic has had dire consequences for Asian Americans, especially women. Of the 3,800 hate incidents reported against Asian Americans last year, 70 percent were directed at women. Exoticized and fetishized Asian American women have borne a dual burden of both racism and sexism, viewed on one hand as submissive and sexually available “lotus blossoms” and on the other as manipulative and dangerous “dragon ladies.”

Asian women are particularly harmed by US militarism and foreign policy—economically, socially, and physically. In Korea, women have long been collateral damage from militarized US foreign policy. The 1950–53 Korean War, which killed 4 million people, led to social and political chaos, separated families, and orphaned and widowed millions, creating conditions where women were without homes and work. This forced women into prostitution, according to Katherine H.S. Moon, an expert on US military prostitution in South Korea and author of the book Sex Among Allies.

Exhibitions Catch Glimpse of Korea

Huérfano coreano

Over a million Korean women have worked in “camptowns” that surround US military bases in South Korea. This system of military prostitution was controlled by the South Korean government and supported by the US military in order to strengthen military alliances and prop up the South Korean economy. Yet the women were stigmatized, “destined to invisibility and silence,” according to Moon.

These camptowns not only facilitated the immigration of thousands of Korean “war brides” to the United States, but also transported the system itself. As the US military steadily reduced its troop presence in Asia, camptown establishments, facing social upheaval and economic uncertainty, began sending their madams and sex workers to US domestic military sites through brokered marriages with US servicemen. Many of these exploited Korean women arrived in the US South, a region housing many domestic military bases, which saw the proliferation of military prostitution. By the 1980s, the Korean American sex trade would spread from these Southern military towns to elsewhere in the United States—including the Atlanta metropolitan area, site of Tuesday’s horrific mass shooting.

We see this anti-Asian violence now manifesting in ramped up US aggression toward China and the ubiquitous US military presence throughout the Asia-Pacific region. According to American University professor David Vine, there are approximately 300 US bases in the Asia-Pacific region circling China, which along with “aggressive naval and air patrols and military exercises, increases threats to Chinese security and encourages the Chinese government to respond by boosting its own military spending and activity.” The military buildup is raising regional military tensions, and increasing the risk of a deadly military clash or what should be an unthinkable war between two nuclear-armed powers.

Protestors hold signs that read "hate is a virus" and "stop Asian hate" at the End The Violence Towards Asians rally in Washington Square Park on February 20, 2021 in New York City.

If we are to successfully stop anti-Asian hatred here in the United States, we must recognize how US foreign policy perpetuates it and end US militarism and wars throughout the Asia-Pacific region. The Biden administration could start by formally ending the Korean War, which cost nearly $400 billion (in 2019 dollars) to fight, and continues to be a source of justification for military-centered policies by the United States, South Korea, Japan, and others in the region.


Christine AhnChristine Ahn is the executive director of Women Cross DMZ and coordinator of Korea Peace Now!

Terry K ParkTerry K Park is a lecturer in the Asian American Studies Program at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Kathleen RichardsKathleen Richards is the communications director of Women Cross DMZ.

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Vietnam: 40 años de una masacre

Por Luis Mazarrasa Mowinckel

EL PAÍS  04 de mayo de 2015
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Un tanque norvietnamita cruza delante del palacio presidencial en Saigón el 30 de abril de 1975. / Reuters

El 30 de abril de 1975 los telediarios mostraban la imagen en blanco y negro de un tanque con la bandera del Vietcong derribando la verja metálica del Palacio Presidencial de Saigón. La Guerra de Vietnam había terminado. Atrás quedaba un conflicto de altísima intensidad que había durado quince años, si se cuenta a partir del comienzo de la actividad guerrillera del Vietcong contra el Gobierno de Vietnam del Sur, en 1959, o incluso 34 si se considera como punto de partida los ataques de las guerrillas de Ho Chi Minh contra el colonialismo francés.

La Guerra de Vietnam, que tomaba por asalto a diario los noticieros de los años sesenta y setenta, fue el enfrentamiento bélico más fotografiado y filmado de la historia, el mayor filón que haya existido para un corresponsal de guerra y el que dejó también casi tantas bandas sonoras como los filmes sobre la II Guerra Mundial.

Esa cobertura exhaustiva del conflicto, sobre todo a partir de la total implicación del Ejército de EE UU a favor de Vietnam del Sur en 1964, fue precisamente un factor fundamental en su desarrollo, ya que incendió a la opinión pública mundial, incluida la norteamericana, que reclamó masivamente la retirada de esa potencia de la guerra en un país del Sureste asiático.

El origen de la contienda que terminó con la victoria de las tropas del Norte y la reunificación de Vietnam en 1975 se encuentra en la lucha del Viet Minh –el ejército guerrillero al mando del líder Ho Chi Minh- en los años cincuenta contra la potencia colonial que desde 1883 había integrado el país, junto con Laos y Camboya, en la Indochina Francesa.

Efectivamente, tras la derrota del invasor japonés al término de la II Guerra Mundial la actividad guerrillera y las ansias independentistas de los vietnamitas se recrudecieron. Así, con la rendición del ejército colonial en 1954 a los vietnamitas del general Giap, en lo que se calificó como el desastre de Dien Bien Phu, Francia se vio obligada a abandonar sus colonias en Indochina.

Los Acuerdos de Ginebra de ese mismo año establecieron una frontera temporal a lo largo del río Ben Hai, a la altura del Paralelo 17, que separó hasta las elecciones de 1956 el norte del país, con un Gobierno comunista que había liderado la victoria, de un Vietnam del Sur, capitalista y cuyos dirigentes se habían alineado con la Francia colonial.

Sin embargo, ante la previsible victoria de Ho Chi Minh –el líder del Norte apoyado por China- en las elecciones acordadas en Ginebra por todas las partes, el primer ministro del Sur, Ngo Dinh Diem, convocó un referéndum en su territorio que lo reafirmó en el cargo, suspendió los comicios y estableció como definitiva la frontera que dividía a la República Democrática de Vietnam del Norte –con capital en Hanoi- y a Vietnam del Sur, con un gobierno instalado en Saigón, también dictatorial, anticomunista y fuertemente ligado a los intereses de Estados Unidos, que desde la marcha de los franceses había inundado el sur de asesores militares.

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Cartel de propaganda en el Museo de Arte de Vietnam. / luis mazarrasa

La flagrante violación de los acuerdos de paz provocó el fin del alto el fuego y la reanudación, pues, de los ataques del Ejército del Norte en los alrededores del Paralelo 17 y de su guerrilla aliada del Vietcong en numerosos puntos del Sur donde se había infiltrado.

1964 marca el inicio de la implicación total de EE UU en el conflicto. El presidente Lyndon B. Johnson, que ha sucedido al asesinado John F. Kennedy, aprovecha el incidente del Golfo de Tonkín, en agosto de ese año –cuando dos buques norteamericanos fueron supuestamente atacados-, como pretexto para bombardear Vietnam del Norte y ordenar el desembarco masivo de marines en las playas de Danang. A finales de 1965 ya eran 184.000 los soldados estadounidenses en el territorio y dos años más tarde, medio millón.

Años después del fin de la contienda se reveló que, en realidad, el destructor Maddox sufrió un ataque al encontrarse en aguas jurisdiccionales norvietnamitas apoyando una operación de tropas de Vietnam del Sur, mientras que el Turner Joy no sufrió agresión alguna. Además, también se demostró que Lyndon Johnson ya disponía de un borrador de la resolución del suceso con fecha anterior a que el incidente de Tonkín hubiera ocurrido.

Las razones que en un principio los presidentes Kennedy y Johnson declararon a la opinión pública norteamericana para justificar la implicación en una guerra: la agresión a un país aliado por los comunistas de Ho Chi Minh y la “evidente” amenaza de un contagio a todo el Sureste asiático en caso de la victoria del Norte, que podría inducir a Tailandia, Camboya, Laos y Corea del Sur a integrarse en el bloque socialista, fueron perdiendo fuerza a medida que las noticias mostraban la terrible devastación provocada por los bombardeos de los B-52 en ciudades y aldeas y los testimonios de numerosos veteranos licenciados del combate y de otros tantos objetores a filas que rechazaban “ir a masacrar a unos campesinos de un país tan lejano”, como declaró algún marine a la vuelta a casa.

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Dos niños corren por una carretera intentando escapar de un ataque con napalm, en Trang Bang, a 26 millas de Saigón, el 8 de junio de 1972. / Reuters

Mientras el conflicto se enconaba, EE UU bombardeaba incesantemente Hanoi y otras ciudades del Norte y el presidente de Vietnam del Sur era asesinado en un golpe de Estado apoyado por la propia Administración norteamericana, las fuerzas armadas de Ho Chi Minh protagonizaban espectaculares golpes de mano, como la Ofensiva del Tet en 1968, que marcó el punto de inflexión en la guerra. Las imágenes en directo de la mismísima embajada de EE UU en Saigón tomada durante unas horas por un grupo de guerrilleros, que actuaban en coordinación con otros que atacaron más de cien ciudades y pueblos protegidos por los marines, conmocionaron aún más a una sociedad que meses más tarde viviría las manifestaciones pacifistas del verano  del amor en 1968 en California y las más violentas del mayo francés.

A ello se sumó la revelación de masacres cometidas por los marines en distritos como My Lai, donde el 16 de marzo de 1968 tres pelotones asesinaron a cientos de campesinos, mujeres, ancianos y niños, y las imágenes de la destrucción causada por los bombardeos y la utilización masiva por parte de EE UU de armas químicas, como el napalm y otras.

En 1970, el descrédito del Gobierno norteamericano por la guerra de Vietnam alcanza su cenit a raíz del golpe de estado tramado por los servicios de inteligencia estadounidenses contra el rey de la vecina Camboya, Norodom Sihanouk. Los soldados norteamericanos cruzaron la frontera para respaldar al dictador Lon Nol como mandatario del país y la Administración de Richard Nixon, el nuevo presidente de EE UU, se vio inmersa en otra guerra hasta entonces llevada en secreto.

Para entonces Estados Unidos ya había perdido más de 40.000 soldados en la Guerra de Vietnam, algo inaceptable para su opinión pública. Por contra, los cinco millones de víctimas vietnamitas –entre combatientes y civiles- no suponían lastre alguno para el Gobierno de Lê Duân, sucesor del recién fallecido Ho Chi Minh. Nadie cuestionaba el precio que habría de pagarse por una guerra nacionalista de liberación.

El 27 de enero de 1973 Estados Unidos, los dos Vietnam y el Vietcong firmaron en París un alto el fuego, la retirada total de las tropas estadounidenses, la liberación de prisioneros y la creación de un Consejo Nacional de Reconciliación. Por primera vez en 115 años el país se veía libre de la presencia de militares extranjeros. EE UU sufría la primera derrota de su historia, que le había causado más de 58.000 militares muertos.

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Atentado del Vietcong en la embajada de Estados Unidos en Saigón. / Agencia Keystone

Pero los Acuerdos de París no trajeron la paz inmediata, con el Sur tremendamente debilitado por la marcha de EE UU y las deserciones masivas de sus tropas. Las hostilidades se reanudaron y en enero de 1975 el Ejército del Norte cruzaba el Paralelo 17 en dirección a Saigón, esta vez sin ceder el protagonismo a los guerrilleros Vietcong.

El general Nguyen Van Thieu, a la cabeza de la República de Vietnam del Sur desde 1967, vio como la promesa de ayuda económica de EE UU para la fase de transición después de los Acuerdos de París era rechazada por la nueva Administración de Gerald Ford, al frente de un país con las heridas del conflicto vietnamita en carne viva y la vergüenza de la dimisión de Richard Nixon una año antes, en 1974, por el caso Watergate.

Con las ciudades del centro del país: Hue, Danang, Nha Trang… cayendo en manos del Norte como fichas de dominó, Van Thieu se atrincheró con sus pocos leales en Saigón hasta el 21 de abril de 1975, cuando dimitió y huyó camino del exilio. Nueve días más tarde, el 30 de abril, Saigón –que las nuevas autoridades de un Vietnam reunificado cambiarían el nombre por Ciudad de Ho Chi Minh- caía en medio de la euforia nacionalista. Las imágenes de la apresurada huida del embajador norteamericano y del personal de la CIA a bordo de helicópteros, horas antes desde las azoteas de sus edificios hacia portaaviones anclados en el Mar del Sur de China, serían la última humillación mediática para EE UU, envuelto en un conflicto que, como declararía años más tarde Robert S. McNamara, el ideólogo de los bombardeos sobre Hanoi y uno de los cocineros del embuste del incidente de Tonkín, fue un tremendo error: “No fuimos conscientes que los vietnamitas no luchaban solo por imponer el comunismo, sino por un ideal nacionalista”.

Hoy, cuando Vietnam celebra los cuarenta años de paz casi por primera vez en su convulsa historia, el país pasa por un espectacular desarrollo económico en el que la pobreza extrema prácticamente se ha erradicado y llueven las inversiones nacionales y extranjeras, aunque sus campos de verdes arrozales todavía sufren las secuelas de los bombardeos y la guerra química. Y medio millón de niños, muchos de ellos nacidos cuatro décadas después, padece terribles deformidades como consecuencia de la irrigación de la jungla con el agente naranja, el defoliante utilizado por EE UU para destruir el ecosistema del país. Su componente principal, la dioxina, daña el ADN de las personas expuestas y se estima que puede transmitir sus efectos durante tres generaciones.

Con un modelo calcado de su gigante vecino chino, Vietnam es una dictadura de partido único en lo político y sin asomo de libertad de expresión ni disidencia y, al mismo tiempo, se halla inmerso en un capitalismo casi salvaje en lo económico.

Luis Mazarrasa Mowinckel es autor de Viajero al curry (Ed. Amargord) y de la Guía Azul de Vietnam y de numerosos reportajes sobre este país.

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The United States Isn’t the Only Country Still Trying to Figure Out the Vietnam War 

HNN  April 20, 2015

Forty years ago this month, the savage war in Vietnam ended dramatically with North Vietnamese tanks crashing through the gates of the Presidential Palace in Saigon. As Americans continue to struggle over the legacies of the Vietnam War, it may surprise many of us that our former enemy who won that war is confronting a crisis over its meaning.

Ever since the end of the war, Hanoi leaders have sought to capitalize on their military victory to legitimize their rule. Every year the event is celebrated with great fanfare, as “the day when South Vietnam was liberated and the country reunified.” The victory on that day, Vietnamese are told again and again, epitomized the 4,000-year history of Vietnamese struggle for independence. Its greatness validated the eternal mandate of the Communist Party to rule the country.

Yet public opinion inside Vietnam about the meaning of the war has quietly shifted in the last two decades as Vietnamese gained the freedom to travel abroad, as scholars gained access to previously classified documents, and as the internet broke the government’s monopoly on access to information. The internet has been the government’s chief adversary more than anything else. Most Vietnamese were born after the war, and without the internet they would not have been able to know what really happened during the war and in its aftermath.

No opinion survey on the topic is permitted, but one gets a sense of the public mood by following online discussions and by initiating informal conversations with ordinary Vietnamese. Much to the government’s chagrin, Vietnamese now view the war as a proxy war and civil war rather than one for national liberation and unification.

In fact, Mr. Le Duan, the leader of the Communist Party who is now acknowledged by historians as the primary architect of the war effort within North Vietnam’s leadership, said in closed meetings that the ultimate goal of the war was to establish communism all over Vietnam. As recently declassified documents show, Mr. Duan repeatedly insisted that the war was fought not only in Vietnam’s interests but also for the Soviet bloc.

Mr. Duan was no Soviet lackey. Recent studies by historians Lien-Hang Nguyen and Pierre Asselin show that he rejected the advice of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev who supported peaceful coexistence between the two Vietnams. In fact, Mr. Duan ordered the arrests of many high-ranking Party members and hundreds of their supporters who opposed his risky military campaign known as the Tet Offensive. They spent years in prison, being accused of spying for the Soviets. This was the civil war in North Vietnam that was only recently revealed.

In this civil war, the enemies of Mr Duan and other fanatical leaders in Hanoi included not only their comrades but also North Vietnamese landlords, industrialists, merchants, intellectuals, and even ordinary peasants. At least 15,000 landlords were executed during a land reform in the mid-1950s. Shops and factories as well as private newspapers were nationalized soon afterwards. Thousands of writers, professionals, and business owners who criticized those policies were sent to labor camps.

By the early 1960s, the free farmers of North Vietnam were no longer free. They were coerced into joining collective farms which paid them barely enough to survive. They fought back with those “weapons of the weak” which are so astutely analyzed by the political scientists James Scott and Benedict Kerkvliet: footdragging, petty thefts of public property, and destruction of crops and livestock.

Radical communist policies were not implemented because Hanoi needed to mobilize resources for war. After the war ended in 1975, the same policies were forced upon South Vietnamese as well. Truckloads of “books that spread decadent capitalist culture” were seized and burned on the streets. Big businesses and factories were nationalized immediately, followed by smaller ones. The free farmers of South Vietnam, like their northern compatriots earlier, were forced to join collective farms.

It wasn’t just former South Vietnamese officials, but also many intellectuals, religious leaders, and entrepreneurs ended up in “re-education camps” or “new economic zones” as well. The civil war in this sense did not cease in 1975, but much later, in the late 1980s, when the Party abandoned collectivization, legalized private enterprises, loosened the ideological yoke on writers, and lifted restrictions on international travel for ordinary people.

The greater freedom and comfort Vietnamese enjoy today came not from the end of the war, but from the end of the communist revolution in the late 1980s. The market reforms that the Party launched since then have been popular, but have ironically invited greater scrutiny into its past fanaticism. Numerous eyewitness accounts of the land reform, re-education camps, and famished life in collective farms are now readily available online for those who want to learn more about that past. This gives birth to the popular joke that “the longest and bloodiest path to capitalism is through socialism.”

In fact, Vietnam’s “market economy with socialist orientations” is making the Vietnamese road to capitalism longer and more brutal. Market reforms have significantly lifted living standards, yet at the same time have fueled increasing discontent. The Party has refused to return ownership of land to farmers, enabling officials at all levels to grab land to enrich themselves. State corporations monopolize the rice export trade and make millions of dollars every year while farmers are forced to accept low prices for their crops.

Except for a few honest leaders, the Party has morphed into a family-run racket. Children of officials, or the “red princes and princesses,” are now routinely appointed to key positions early on to succeed their parents when they retire. This perverse outcome naturally causes the war that brought the country under the Party’s control to be seen in a new light. As the popular poet and once-People’s Army soldier Nguyen Duy wrote, “whichever side won in war, it is the people who lost.”

Nguyen Duy spoke for numerous other North Vietnamese intellectuals from military leaders such as the late General Tran Do and Colonel Pham Que Duong, to scientists and scholars such as Nguyen Thanh Giang and Nguyen Hue Chi, to prominent writers such as Nguyen Ngoc and Nguyen Quang Lap, to young lawyers and doctors such as Nguyen Van Dai and Pham Hong Son.

General Do, the most “Bolshevik” among the dissidents, joined the communist party in his teens and was the commissar of North Vietnamese forces in South Vietnam during the later years of the war. In the 1990s, he gave up hope on communism and called for reassessing the communists’ contributions to the country, pointing to Taiwan, South Korea, and Singapore, which had achieved independence and economic prosperity without being led by a communist party. For his criticisms, Mr. Do was expelled from the Party. At his funeral, the government even ordered thugs to harass the hundreds who came to pay their respects.

In a recent two-volume book about postwar Vietnam, journalist Huy Duc admitted that in hindsight it was the South that liberated the North, not vice versa. North Vietnamese lived in abject poverty caused mostly by their leaders’ fanatical policies, yet many were led to believe that their socialist system was superior and that their Southern compatriots’ lives were much worse under imperialism. What they saw with their own eyes in the South after 1975 liberated their minds from the web of lies told by their leaders.

Mr. Duc grew up in North Vietnam during the war and once served as a captain in the People’s Army of Vietnam. He had access to top Party leaders and their advisers, and maintained a balanced perspective throughout his book. Mr. Duc’s book, which was published in the U.S. and sold on Amazon last year, created an immediate sensation inside Vietnam. It spurred lively online debates for months afterward, and has received widespread acclaims from Vietnam experts.

Mr. Duc was close to the late Vo Van Kiet, who was Vietnam’s Prime Minister in the 1990s. During the war Mr. Kiet was one of the top leaders of communist forces in the South. His wife and two children were killed during a bombing raid, yet he was honest enough to have once admitted that the anniversary of the communist victory in April 1975 brought not only joy to millions of Vietnamese but also sorrow to millions of other Vietnamese.

Forty years after the end of the war, prominent Vietnamese from diverse backgrounds now feel that it was a costly mistake. Of course, the Party would never admit that. A military parade is being planned in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the communist victory. We’ll have to see whether the show of guns can substitute for the loss of mandate. As the symbolism of that victory has shifted, how long the regime will still be around to celebrate future anniversaries is another interesting question to ponder.

A native of Vietnam and an associate professor of political science at the University of Oregon, Tuong Vu has authored many books and articles about the Cold War, the Vietnam War, and the Vietnamese revolution. He can be reached at thvu@uoregon.edu.

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America´s Dien Bien Phu Syndrome

by John Prados
Histrory News Network    March 12, 2014
Image via Wiki Commons.

Image via Wiki Commons.

March 13, 2014 marks the sixtieth anniversary of the day in 1954 when the Vietnamese revolutionaries known as the Viet Minh opened the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, which marked the end of the French imperial adventure in Indochina. General Vo Nguyen Giap, the Viet Minh commander, passed away just a few months ago and did not live to see this day. But Giap, who served as the defense minister of North Vietnam through the entire American War — and, indeed, many Vietnamese — always considered Dien Bien Phu their greatest moment.

It’s not hard to see why.

During America’s war in Vietnam, the North Vietnamese beneffitted from having a real army, trained over years, well-equipped by Chinese and Soviet patrons, and a well-entrenched state apparatus. At the time of Dien Bien Phu, by contrast, the Viet Minh controlled only portions of the land (outside of the major cities, naturally), faced economic challenges, and were already weary from years of bitter fighting. In addition, the logistical obstacles simply in mounting the effort to assault the remote French position were enormous.

Dien Bien Phu was a far-away mountain valley in the northwest quadrant of Vietnam, hundreds of miles from Viet Minh bases. Roads were few and mostly had not been maintained for a decade. To support an army there — and the Viet Minh numbered 50,000 men — required a scale of supply far beyond anything the Vietnamese had ever attempted. Their opponents, the French Expeditionary Corps, possessed all the advantages of a modern, Western army — tanks, guns, planes, elite paratroops and Foreign Legion units, sophisticated command control mechanisms, good intelligence regarding their adversary — and they fought in a region where the Viet Minh had made many fewer inroads with the population than in the coastal lowlands. The French had another major advantage: massive militaryaid from the United States, a torrent by comparison with Chinese and Soviet support for the Viet Minh.

But this did not mean the French expected victory to be easy at Dien Bien Phu. It was in many respects the final roll of the dice for the French war effort — and the generals knew it. Like their enemy, France had grown weary of the war. The mountain valley lay far from French bases too, and the total French lack of control of the ground in northwest Vietnam made Dien Bien Phu completely dependent on aerial supply. When Giap’s artillery opened a barrage on Dien Bien Phu’s airfield, the only way French troops could be resupplied was via airdrop. Within days Giap’s men captured positions that sealed it completely shut with anti-aircraft guns ringing the drop zone.

By then, the battle became an albatross around the French neck. Only American intervention in the form of Operation Vulture could have saved the French position. Washington struggled hard throughout the siege of Dien Bien Phu, and even after it ended, to craft conditions suitable for American military action. The effort to create a platform from which to intervene did not end with the Geneva agreements of 1954, or with the formation of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, or even with U.S. support for the nascent government of South Vietnam — and it ultimately led direct to America’s war in Vietnam.

The decades since Dien Bien Phu are littered with similar dramas. The typical production features a local ally — usually a government but sometimes an insurgent force — who possesses a modicum of power but is unstable, and an adversary (with varying degrees of power and determination) contesting some place the United States considers to have strategic importance. Today, the play is Crimea. Syria was yesterday. A year ago, Libya. Iraq (and its prelude). Afghanistan. Kosovo. Haiti. Somalia. Panama. Nicaragua. Lebanon. the Dominican Republic. The reviews of these productions can be left to others.

At Dien Bien Phu, the United States had a substantial capacity to act. But the lesson of Dien Bien Phu is that the critical variables lie in the stability of America’s local ally and in its own goals and interests, rather than U.S. firepower. At Dien Bien Phu American intelligence believed there was no reason the loss of the French garrison should affect the overall conduct of the war. But General Giap and Ho Chi Minh knew better. A weary American ally had decided the game was no longer worth the candle and wanted to get out of the war. That made Paris extraordinarily vulnerable to the impact of a military defeat in the Vietnamese mountains. Washington discovered it could not make Paris stick to the commitments the French made along the way as the U.S. strove to craft conditions for its intervention. Something similar appears to have happened in Afghanistan, where Hamid Karzai is backing away his own commitments to the United States.

In making their decisions on intervention, United States officials need to become much more sophisticated in their appreciations of the stability of local allies — and discerning of the goals and interests of those parties to conflict.

John Prados is a senior fellow of the National Security Archive in Washington, DC. His current ebook is Operation Vulture: America’s Dien Bien Phu. Read more of Prados’s work on his website. © John Prados, 2014

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