HELL IN A VERY SMALL PLACE
The Vietnamese War: Revolution and Social Change in the Mekong Delta 1930-1975, by David W. P. Elliot. M.E. Sharp, Armonk, NY, 2003.
I just finished David W. P. Elliot’s monumental The Vietnamese War: Revolution and Social Change in the Mekong Delta 1930-1975. The original edition is two volumes, 1500 pages including the appendices and index. It is a diachronic history of a single province in the Mekong Delta, based mostly on interviews with NLF fighters, POWS and those who changed sides, conducted by the Rand Corporation in the mid-sixties. Elliot spent seven years in Vietnam conducting these interviews. There is also a wealth of Vietnamese language materials from both the north and south, government and party documents, provincial military histories, and memoirs. The result is a rich, at times day-to-day account of events from the Vietnamese perspective. Few books of history are so dedicated to the Vietnamese viewpoint and none offer this level of granular detail. Elliot investigates both broad, socio-cultural, economic and political trends and individual decisions. He subjects theories, like the rational peasant vs. the moral peasant, to reveal the complex interplay between self-interest and a commitment to the ideal of independence.
Elliot has sympathy for both sides in the conflict. He is patient with the view that if only America had done more, stayed longer, the south would have won, while ultimately rejecting it. He is critical throughout of the northern generals and party leaders who were attempting to conduct the war from afar, and also of the southern revolutionaries who were always in a perilous position but acted at times with extreme cruelty. He discusses how the hard habits of survival learned by revolutionaries of secrecy, paranoia, authoritarianism, and ruthlessness are carried over in victory, when rebels become rulers. But as he says, the north and the revolutionaries were often down and never out and retain, to this day, legitimacy. In the end, the south, and the Americans, were never able to establish their own legitimacy, something the Communists earned over many decades of fighting the French, the Japanese and the Americans. His thesis includes the paradox that after the revolution the North was a victim of its own success. The north’s land policies and political education in the south created a wealthier, and more aware population of peasants and workers who would reject the collectivist policies of the revolution after the war. The communists had carried out land reform in the north in the fifties, redistributing land and then forming collective farms. Land reform in the south was inevitably less draconian. They broke up the large holdings and severely curtailed tenant farming and big landlords. The plan was always to redistribute land to families for use, not ownership but the collective business and farms imposed on the south after the war failed. Today there are no collective farms and rural people are free to buy and sell land. This is actually what the peasants always wanted, in addition to being free from foreign domination.
The south was always more entrepreneurial and individualistic than the north, but only to a degree. The intense and unrelenting violence of the war drove populations out of the country and into the cities where people dressed and behaved differently. The war created a desire for peace, but also altered traditional society in ways neither side desired or predicted. History changed people.
Many people know something about the Vietnam War in the 1960s. Napalm, Agent Orange, free-fire zones, strategic hamlets, search and destroy, swift boats, the Ho Chi Min Trail, the Phoenix Program, the Tet Offensive, My Lai, these are things Americans are aware of, especially if they lived through it. But the events of the 1930s are totally unknown, and knowledge of this period might have stopped the US from becoming involved. But I doubt it. From the beginning there were knowledgeable people in power who advised against our support of France, the division of the country, the refusal to hold national elections, the rise of Diem, and the invasion in 1965. It was not for lack of knowledge but rather the refusal of everyone from Eisenhower to Johnson to heed it. Towards the end Elliot reminds the reader that history is not what might have happened, could have happened, or should have happened. It’s what actually did happen.
This is a quote from an interview Elliot did for PBS. He consulted on Ken Burns’ documentary (and also, it turns out, Stanley Karnow’s):
“What lessons can government leaders learn from President Johnson’s approach to Vietnam?
“There are many lessons, but I would single out four.
“The first is that a foreign policy driven mainly by domestic politics is usually fatally flawed. It was domestic political considerations that drove Presidents Kennedy and Johnson to escalate a conflict they knew was peripheral to American interests and was probably unwinnable. Paradoxically, related to this pessimism about the prospects in Vietnam was the danger of hubris, and thinking that America has the power to make the world over into its image, the legacy of the triumphalism resulting from the victory of World War II.
“Many years after the end of the Vietnam War said a sadder but wiser McGeorge Bundy, National Security Advisor to Kennedy and Johnson, “…we ought not to ever be in a position where we are deciding, or undertaking to decide, or even trying to influence the internal power structure of another country.” George Kennan, a foreign service officer and student of history who had formulated the Cold War strategy of containment, came to the same conclusion long before Bundy. In the Fulbright hearings on Vietnam in February 1966 in the U.S. Senate, Kennan stated ‘Our country should not be asked, and should not ask of itself, to shoulder the main burden of determining the political realities in any other country…’
“A third lesson concerns the perils of inappropriate analogies, and applying doctrines (like containment) and sweeping but unproven theories (like the Domino Theory) to a complex specific situation. The doctrine of containment, as its originator George Kennan pointed out, did not apply to Vietnam. His testimony to the Senate on the Vietnam War has enduring relevance for America’s role in the world. He explained that Ho Chi Minh was not Hitler or Stalin and, if he was victorious, would not be a puppet of Moscow or Beijing. Assessing the costs and benefits of escalating in Vietnam (which were never systematically addressed by Washington policymakers – another fundamental error of policy making) would, Kennan said, lead to the conclusion that it would result in civilian death and suffering on a scale “for which I would not like to see this country responsible.” Again, the Washington policy makers devoted little attention to the issues of proportionality and ends and means, which should be the starting point of decision making about war and peace.
“A fourth lesson of Vietnam is the need for constant reexamination of fundamental assumptions. The world is in constant flux, and new situations require a rethinking of inherited conventional wisdom. Vietnam was seen as a peripheral problem, whose importance to the United States always derived from some larger issue; Cold War support for the French as they clung to the last vestiges of empire, a mistaken view that North Vietnam was a proxy acting at the behest of the Soviet Union and China (China was Vietnam’s age-old enemy and both Communist powers did not initially approve or support the rising insurgency in South Vietnam, doing so only after the United States escalated its involvement in 1961). Vietnam should have been seen as a local problem of decolonization, the major international current of the 1950s and early 1960s, and not as a Cold War problem challenging American global credibility.
“During my teaching career at Pomona I tried my best to pass on the wisdom of these observations, especially to students in my U.S. Foreign Policy class.” (https://www.pomona.edu/news/2017/09/25-pbs-series-advisor-professor-emeritus-david-elliott-reflects-vietnam-war)
This Proustian endeavor is obviously not for every reader. The only available edition at the moment is the concise, single-volume one. It took me a year to finish this thing. I didn’t want it to end really, his writing is so lucid, and at all times relevant to his thesis. This is a masterwork that unfortunately will only be read by a few academics. It is about the true tragedy of the Vietnamese war for independence: 45 years of fighting, including nearly 20 years of civil war. Bernard Fall’s title sums it up pretty well: Hell in a Very Small Place.