How the Dominoes Fell

Declaring the Vietnam War a just and necessary American war these days is about the equivalent of suggesting that Adolf Hitler and the Nazis were humanitarians. So seared into American consciousness is antipathy to that conflict and its needless loss of life that it has all but obscured the original purposes for which the United States consigned itself to defend freedom in Indo-China in the first place.

By the time the tanks of the People's Army of Vietnam smashed through the gates of Saigon's Presidential Place on April 30, 1975, America had already long before given up the fight to save Vietnam. Earlier in April, President Gerald Ford had urged Congress to provide aerial support for the retreating ARVN -- the South Vietnamese armed forces -- only to be rebuffed by a war-weary and Democrat-controlled House. Ford himself closed the books on the conflict when he announced on April 23 that the Vietnam War was over.  

Not many people at the time when Ford made his announcement recalled the days when supporting Vietnam stood as a central plank in the effort to stem Communist aggression in Southeast Asia. Not many seemed to care that millions of people were about to be subjected to lives beyond endurance.

For within weeks, the Viet Cong depopulated South Vietnam's cities of intellectuals, professionals, political leaders, and military personnel and sent them to " re-education camps." Over 250,000 were dispatched in this way, many to suffer torture and many never to return.

Worse than this was the unleashing of the most devastating refugee crisis the world had witnessed since the end of the Second World War. Middle-class Vietnamese citizens, desperate to escape fast-enveloping North Vietnamese repression, boarded rickety boats that then plied the dangerous waters of the South China Sea. Sinkings, piracy, and rape (of both women and children) by Thai brigands were common occurrences during these years. Nearly one million Vietnamese are estimated to have fled Vietnam, and hundreds of thousands of them perished in the process.

In Laos, the communist insurgency Pathet Lao, along with the Vietnam People's Army and backed by the Soviet Union, overthrew the royalist Laos government, forcing King Savang Vatthana to abdicate on December 2, 1975. A ruthless purge followed, which reproduced much of the pattern already set in Vietnam. Particularly hard-hit were the Hmong, whose tapestries to this day depict the savagery of their Communist oppressors.

Perhaps the worst result of the American abandonment of Indo-China was the events that followed in Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge reached Phnom Penh in December 1975. They immediately evacuated the cities and sent the entire population on forced marches to rural work projects. They instituted an austere form of agrarian reform, eschewing Western medicine, subverting religion, burning libraries, and proscribing as decadent anything Western. Over the next four years, the death toll from executions, overwork, starvation, and disease spiraled into the millions in the form of the trials of Cambodia, renamed the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea, and burned an indelible scar onto the consciousness of the West. 

Was any of this foreseen in the 1950s, when the U.S. government first set its sights on upholding fledgling democratic regimes in the wake of Communist threats?

Well, yes. In fact, in June 1956, a young east-coast senator made the case quite convincingly:

Vietnam represents the cornerstone of the Free World in South East Asia, the keystone to the arch, the finger in the dike. Burma, Thailand, India, Japan, the Philippines and obviously Laos and Cambodia are among those whose security would be threatened if the Red Tide of Communism overflowed into Vietnam. ... Vietnam represents a test of American responsibility and determination in Asia. And if it falls victim to any of the perils that threaten its existence - Communism, political anarchy, poverty and the rest, then the United States, with some justification, will be held responsible and our prestige in Asia will sink to a new low.

Who was to know that the words of Senator John F. Kennedy would prove not only prophetic, but also indicative of something far more dire than anything he could have foreseen? Certainly not the burgeoning antiwar movement, for whom the bad guys had come to be represented by those wearing green berets; nor the U.S. media, who casually bought into the idea that a loss in Vietnam gave the United States a well-deserved comeuppance.

But can we ever forget that during the 20th century, nearly a hundred million people died as a result of Communist takeovers, and another thirty million were annihilated through starvation, imprisonment, and summary execution? One has to wonder if those so vociferously opposed to the war still think today, in the light of what became of Indo-China, that there never existed any good reasons to fight for a free Vietnam.

In an age of cynicism and ideological retrenchment, when a new U.S. administration has repudiated any idea of involving this country in the struggle for freedom and democracy for other peoples, it might pay to learn the true lesson of Vietnam: Abandonment of our allies' quest for freedom may not lead just to their enslavement. It can lead to the betrayal of our own ideals and principles -- a calumny that will corrode America's very soul.
Declaring the Vietnam War a just and necessary American war these days is about the equivalent of suggesting that Adolf Hitler and the Nazis were humanitarians. So seared into American consciousness is antipathy to that conflict and its needless loss of life that it has all but obscured the original purposes for which the United States consigned itself to defend freedom in Indo-China in the first place.

By the time the tanks of the People's Army of Vietnam smashed through the gates of Saigon's Presidential Place on April 30, 1975, America had already long before given up the fight to save Vietnam. Earlier in April, President Gerald Ford had urged Congress to provide aerial support for the retreating ARVN -- the South Vietnamese armed forces -- only to be rebuffed by a war-weary and Democrat-controlled House. Ford himself closed the books on the conflict when he announced on April 23 that the Vietnam War was over.  

Not many people at the time when Ford made his announcement recalled the days when supporting Vietnam stood as a central plank in the effort to stem Communist aggression in Southeast Asia. Not many seemed to care that millions of people were about to be subjected to lives beyond endurance.

For within weeks, the Viet Cong depopulated South Vietnam's cities of intellectuals, professionals, political leaders, and military personnel and sent them to " re-education camps." Over 250,000 were dispatched in this way, many to suffer torture and many never to return.

Worse than this was the unleashing of the most devastating refugee crisis the world had witnessed since the end of the Second World War. Middle-class Vietnamese citizens, desperate to escape fast-enveloping North Vietnamese repression, boarded rickety boats that then plied the dangerous waters of the South China Sea. Sinkings, piracy, and rape (of both women and children) by Thai brigands were common occurrences during these years. Nearly one million Vietnamese are estimated to have fled Vietnam, and hundreds of thousands of them perished in the process.

In Laos, the communist insurgency Pathet Lao, along with the Vietnam People's Army and backed by the Soviet Union, overthrew the royalist Laos government, forcing King Savang Vatthana to abdicate on December 2, 1975. A ruthless purge followed, which reproduced much of the pattern already set in Vietnam. Particularly hard-hit were the Hmong, whose tapestries to this day depict the savagery of their Communist oppressors.

Perhaps the worst result of the American abandonment of Indo-China was the events that followed in Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge reached Phnom Penh in December 1975. They immediately evacuated the cities and sent the entire population on forced marches to rural work projects. They instituted an austere form of agrarian reform, eschewing Western medicine, subverting religion, burning libraries, and proscribing as decadent anything Western. Over the next four years, the death toll from executions, overwork, starvation, and disease spiraled into the millions in the form of the trials of Cambodia, renamed the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea, and burned an indelible scar onto the consciousness of the West. 

Was any of this foreseen in the 1950s, when the U.S. government first set its sights on upholding fledgling democratic regimes in the wake of Communist threats?

Well, yes. In fact, in June 1956, a young east-coast senator made the case quite convincingly:

Vietnam represents the cornerstone of the Free World in South East Asia, the keystone to the arch, the finger in the dike. Burma, Thailand, India, Japan, the Philippines and obviously Laos and Cambodia are among those whose security would be threatened if the Red Tide of Communism overflowed into Vietnam. ... Vietnam represents a test of American responsibility and determination in Asia. And if it falls victim to any of the perils that threaten its existence - Communism, political anarchy, poverty and the rest, then the United States, with some justification, will be held responsible and our prestige in Asia will sink to a new low.

Who was to know that the words of Senator John F. Kennedy would prove not only prophetic, but also indicative of something far more dire than anything he could have foreseen? Certainly not the burgeoning antiwar movement, for whom the bad guys had come to be represented by those wearing green berets; nor the U.S. media, who casually bought into the idea that a loss in Vietnam gave the United States a well-deserved comeuppance.

But can we ever forget that during the 20th century, nearly a hundred million people died as a result of Communist takeovers, and another thirty million were annihilated through starvation, imprisonment, and summary execution? One has to wonder if those so vociferously opposed to the war still think today, in the light of what became of Indo-China, that there never existed any good reasons to fight for a free Vietnam.

In an age of cynicism and ideological retrenchment, when a new U.S. administration has repudiated any idea of involving this country in the struggle for freedom and democracy for other peoples, it might pay to learn the true lesson of Vietnam: Abandonment of our allies' quest for freedom may not lead just to their enslavement. It can lead to the betrayal of our own ideals and principles -- a calumny that will corrode America's very soul.