What South Vietnam’s Collapse Can Teach Us About Iraq

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On April 30, 1975, soldiers of the North Vietnamese Army raised the red, blue, and gold-starred flag of the National Liberation Front atop the South Vietnamese Presidential Palace in Saigon.  The event marked the final triumph of Vietnam’s Communist revolutionary forces over the U.S.-backed regime of Nguyen Van Thieu.

Ever since the unexpectedly rapid collapse of South Vietnam in March and April 1975, historians, military analysts, and former U.S. and South Vietnamese officials have debated the reasons South Vietnam fell to the Communists. Former top Pentagon officials, members of the Nixon and Ford administrations, and neo-conservative academics have placed the blame for America’s defeat in Vietnam on a group collectively known as the American Left.  In the minds of American conservatives, the Left of the 1960’s and 1970’s consisted of anti-war protesters, civil rights activists, hippies, the television and print media, Ivy League academics, and a Democratic-controlled Congress.

In the conservative narrative of the Vietnam War, the various elements that constituted the Left conspired to bring about South Vietnam’s ignoble end.  Anti-war protesters marched on the Pentagon and pressured the government to prematurely withdraw U.S. forces from South Vietnam.  The civil rights movement fostered a divisive politics that diverted both the government’s and the public’s attention away from the crisis in Southeast Asia.  Hippies encouraged draft-dodging, drug-use, and disrespect for the establishment, all of which undermined the war effort.  Meanwhile, the media unfairly criticized the U.S. military’s conduct of the war, wrongly portraying U.S. actions as barbaric, even criminal.  As for the academic community, it radicalized America’s youth and encouraged the anti-war protests.  And if all of this wasn’t enough, the Democrats in Congress cut aid to South Vietnam in 1974, making it impossible for the South Vietnamese to defend their tiny country against a supposedly superior enemy.

Yet, not one of the above explanations for South Vietnam’s collapse adequately explains why the Republic of Vietnam disintegrated in a matter of weeks. The South’s unravelling began on March 13, when North Vietnamese and Vietcong soldiers overran the Central Highlands town of Ban Me Thuot.  A day later, President Thieu ordered his military forces out of the Central Highlands.  The withdrawal from the highlands became a panicked rout as South Vietnamese units hurriedly retreated down the only open road to the coast.  In their haste to escape from the clutches of the Communists, South Vietnamese soldiers left behind hundreds of millions of dollars-worth of American equipment, including helicopters, armoured personnel carriers, tanks, trucks, and artillery pieces.

When word of the disaster unfolding in the highlands reached the cities along the coastal plain, a new wave of collective hysteria took hold amongst the pro-government civilians and South Vietnamese troops there.  Officers and enlisted men deserted their posts to take care of their families, while hundreds of thousands of civilians made frantic efforts to board helicopters, passenger jets, and ships bound for areas still in Government hands.  By the third week of March 1975, an acute sense of fear and dread rippled through the cities and towns of South Vietnam; while out in the countryside, the peasantry, long sympathetic to the Communist cause, assisted the Vietcong and PAVN in their advance.

On March 27, as Danang was about to fall to the North Vietnamese Army, Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger met with President Gerald Ford to discuss the deteriorating situation in Vietnam.  He told the president, “…it looks like they [the South Vietnamese] have lost virtually everything and North Vietnam has suffered very little…I say this with a bleeding heart – but maybe you must put Vietnam behind you….”[1]  Kissinger believed South Vietnam was a lost cause.  He reached that disturbing conclusion only two weeks into the Communist offensive.

South Vietnamese politician Ton That Thien shared Kissinger’s dire outlook on the future of South Vietnam.  Soon after the loss of Danang, he stated, “Thieu made a mistake at Ban Me Thuot, but that was no reason to throw the rest away.  From there, he went on to provoke a panic that couldn’t be stopped.  It’s too late to do anything about it now.  Nothing any military man or civilian could do would help much…Why should the other side be interested in coalition or negotiations now…They have won.”[2]

By April 1, foreign military analysts in Saigon concluded that South Vietnam’s civilian and military command structure had completely broken down.  Keen observers doubted whether the South Vietnamese Army could field more than a handful of units. Granted, some South Vietnamese formations still fought on into April in isolated pockets such as the one at Xuan Loc, but there was no longer any coordinated, effective defence of what remained of the country.  Thus, by April 1, 1975, the war was all but over; it only remained for the Communists to seize Saigon.

The North Vietnamese Army probably could have taken Saigon by the end of the first week of April if its commanders had decided to push their troops hard, but for a host of reasons, including the fear of American re-intervention, the Communists opted to wait to occupy the South Vietnamese capital until the U.S. evacuated all of its personnel from South Vietnam.

A number of socio-economic and political variables converged in early 1975 to bring about South Vietnam’s hasty collapse.  None of the factors that fostered South Vietnam’s unravelling had anything to do with the American Left.

For years, similar variables have been at work in Iraq – with the potential to bring about the same results – a rapid social and political disintegration.

1) A Religious Divide.  Nine out of ten South Vietnamese were Buddhists, animists, or members of the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao religious sects.  This majority population resented the monopolization of political, economic, and military power in the hands of Catholics. And so, when push came to shove in 1975, the majority of South Vietnamese had little reason to defend the Catholic elite against the Communists.

2) Official Corruption.  After the pull-out of U.S. troops in March 1973, and the 1974 Arab Oil Embargo, the South Vietnamese economy went into a tailspin and inflation skyrocketed.  To compensate for the loss of income, government officials, South Vietnamese officers, and common soldiers increasingly engaged in corruption.  For example, South Vietnamese soldiers set-up road blocks on National Route 1 to rob passer-by, officers sold drugs to their own troops, and high officials in the Government stole U.S. aid earmarked for war refugees.  Corruption undermined troop morale and turned the populace against the regime.

3) The Absence of Nationalism.  The South Vietnamese possessed neither a national identity nor a unifying ideology.  Family came before nation and neighbours.

4) Tribal and Ethnic Divisions.  Montagnard soldiers were a vital component of South Vietnams defence of the Central Highlands.  However, the South Vietnamese considered the Montagnards an inferior people and treated them with disdain.  Following the American withdrawal, relations deteriorated between the South Vietnamese and the Montagnards.  By 1975, tensions between the two peoples had reached such a low point that large numbers of Montagnard soldiers refused to fight for the Saigon regime, which contributed to the loss of the Central Highlands and the subsequent South Vietnamese rout.

5) A Determined and Feared Enemy Occupied Vast Stretches of Territory.  At the beginning of 1975, the Vietcong and North Vietnamese controlled large chunks of South Vietnamese territory, especially in the northern provinces, Central Highlands, and in the foothills next to the coastal plain.  The persistent presence of a powerful enemy within South Vietnam, and the inability of the Government to eject that enemy, contributed to a widespread public loss of faith in both the South Vietnamese Army and the Thieu regime.  As a result, the South Vietnamese people felt a sense of hopelessness in South Vietnam’s future prospects even before the start of the Communist’s 1975 offensive.  Then, once the offensive kicked-off, that hopelessness fed the panic which led to the rout.

6) Internal Opposition.  By late 1974, a number of different political groups within South Vietnam began to openly challenge President Thieu’s authority.  Consequently, Thieu suffered a crisis of legitimacy just as the North Vietnamese and Vietcong intensified their military operations against his regime.  Faced with widespread internal opposition to his rule, including from those who had once been his most loyal followers, Thieu failed to rally the public to meet the Communist threat.

7) An Ambiguous U.S. Policy.  In 1975, the South Vietnamese believed the Americans would come to their rescue, as they had in 1961, 1965, and 1972.  Top Saigon officials could not imagine the United States letting South Vietnam go down the drain after having sacrificed so much American blood and treasure in the attempt to preserve the country from Communism.  This idea – that the Americans would bail them out yet again – kept the South Vietnamese from taking full responsibility for the defence of their country.

It’s impossible to predict when and how a nation-state will collapse.  There are too many variables, known and unknown, that must converge to bring about a general disintegration of the social, political, and military order.  Nonetheless, if and when Iraq begins to unravel, look for a convergence of the same variables that led to South Vietnam’s demise.

Endnotes

[1] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969-1976, Volume X, Vietnam, January 1973-July 1975, “Document 194, Telegram From the Embassy in Vietnam to the Department of State, March 27, 1975,” Footnote, (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 2010), 701.

[2] New York Times, “A Saigon Anti-Red Says War is Over,” April 1, 1975.

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