That old “Vietnam is Arabic for Iraq” bumper sticker is still on my car. Am I out-of-date? The continuing presence of Cheney’s sneer on U.S. TV, as though he should be considered a legitimate public figure instead of a discredited national disaster, suggests that I am not. The pattern of errors from the French Indochina War to the American Indochina War to the War Against Islamic Independence (if I may be permitted to assign the sort of names that may become generally accepted by historians of the future) is ominous. By failing unambiguously to denounce the mistakes of their allies and predecessors, American politicians ensure the repetition of their mistakes.
Overconfidence. The French, being in Vietnam first, led the way in making fundamental mistakes. According to The Pentagon Papers:
In May, 1947, Minister of War Coste-Floret announced in Paris that: “There is no military problem any longer in Indochina . . . the success of French arms is complete.” Within six months, though ambitious armored, amphibious, and airborne drives had plunged into the northern mountains and along the Annam coast, Viet Minh sabotage and raids along lines of communication had mounted steadily, and Paris had come to realize that France had lost the military initiative.
Military Solutions to Political Problems.
The record shows that through 1953, the French pursued a policy which was based on military victory and excluded meaningful negotiations with Ho Chi Minh.
Simplistic Analysis of the Adversary. The following classic oversimplification is of course a self-fulfilling prophesy of which politicians seem never to tire:
American thinking and policy-making was dominated by the tendency to view communism in monolithic terms.
It is ironic that this Washington attitude toward the Viet Minh existed, since relations between the anti-Japanese Viet Minh and the U.S. had been cooperative during World War II.
From 1946 to 1954, France became increasingly engaged in a major counter-insurgency campaign in Indochina. At first, the threat was not immediately recognized as being serious, but it soon became a strategic imperative for France to keep its colony, and prevent a precedent to be emulated across its colonial empire. Furthermore, after its defeat in June 1940 by Germany, France was engaged in reinstating itself as a major power, and would not allow a colonial conflict to be lost to a gang of insurgents. Over time, the French military commitment, including auxiliaries and Vietnamese allies, reached nearly 450,000 troops.. Source.
Take Key Assumptions for Granted. The surest path to disaster is the failure to question fundamental assumptions, and the classic assumption is of course that everything you want is essential for survival. Whatever you do, never waste time trying to figure out an alternative way of achieving one’s goal.
The U.S. Government internal debate on the question of intervention centered essentially on the desirability and feasibility of U.S. military action. Indochina‘s importance to U.S. security interests in the Far East was taken for granted.
Making Historic Decisions Too Quickly. Truman’s decision only three days after the North Korean attack on South Korea in 1950 to provide significant military aid to the French war against the Viet-Minh, who had assumed power, declared Vietnamese independence, and requested international recognition following Japan’s surrender, is a classic. The US military aid surge notwithstanding, by the end of the year, a Viet-Minh campaign to destroy French forts on the Vietnamese-Chinese border had inflicted what has been called the worst colonial defeat of French forces since the 1767 loss of Quebec.
Where, in all the conflict, is any Western awareness of the natural preference of societies for making their own decisions? Regardless of right or wrong, once a society perceives a domestic conflict as being dominated by foreigners, those foreigners begin to lose momentum. Perhaps the key fact about the whole post-WWII Western experience in Vietnam is that the French had to reinvade after Japan’s defeat, e.g., the 1946 naval shelling of Haiphong and consequent slaughter of thousands of Vietnamese and provocation of the French Indochina War following the unilateral French decision to modify its previous recognition of Vietnamese independence by limiting the Viet Minh regime to the north.