Gwynne Dyer: Vietnam War and war on terror both fuelled by foreign-policy delusions

Communist Party congresses are generally tedious events, and the 11th congress of the Vietnamese Communist Party (January 12 to 17) is no exception. The changes in personnel at the top are decided by the elite inner circle of the party long before the congress opens, and the rhetoric is in the same wooden language that Communists always use.

The nation must “renew the growth model and restructure the economy to speed up industrialization and modernization with fast and sustainable development,” outgoing party leader Nong Duc Manh told the congress on its opening day. “The strategy is to strive towards 2020 so that our country will basically become an industrialized nation.” Well, that’s a novel approach, isn’t it?

The talk is all about fighting inflation and corruption (there’s quite a lot of both those things in Vietnam), while maintaining a high economic growth rate (6.8 percent last year). Ordinary people are struggling to maintain their standard of living (although they are far better off than they were 20 or 40 years ago), and resent being bossed around by the Communist elite—but they feel helpless to do anything about it. In other words, it’s not all that different from the situation in, say, Thailand, just a little to the west, apart from the fact that the economic elite in Vietnam are Communist Party members and their businessman cronies.

Thailand is technically a democracy, but if you are a rural “red shirt” in Thailand your views on those in power will be little different from those that many Vietnamese peasants privately hold about the Communist Party. It’s a more traditional elite in Thailand, but it clings to power just as tightly, and rewards itself even more lavishly.

So what was it all about, then? Why was there a 15-year war in Vietnam (1960-75) that killed 58,000 American soldiers, and between one and three million Vietnamese? The U.S. government insisted at the time that it was about stopping Communist expansionism in Vietnam before it swept through all of Southeast Asia. The Communists, who controlled North Vietnam, said it was only about reuniting the country. Who was right?

In retrospect, it’s clear that the Communists were telling the truth. They won the war in Vietnam despite all the efforts of the United States, but the “domino effect” in the rest of Southeast Asia never happened. In fact, the Vietnamese Communists never even tried to knock the dominoes over.

Apart from invading Cambodia in 1978 to drive the Khmer Rouge, a much nastier group of Communists, from power, Communist-ruled Vietnam has never sent troops abroad or interfered in the internal affairs of other countries in the region. After a decade all the Vietnamese troops were withdrawn from Cambodia, and even there Hanoi has virtually no influence today.

As for some vast Communist plot to overrun Southeast Asia, it was never more than a fantasy. Indeed, within four years of uniting Vietnam, the Communist regime in Hanoi was at war with Communist China over a border dispute. In a perfect world, most people would probably prefer to spare their country the burden of a generation of Communist rule, but Vietnam is not a disaster, and it is no threat to anyone else.

So, once again, what was the war about? How did three American presidents allow themselves to be misled into fighting such a pointless, unwinnable war? Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson were all intelligent men, and Eisenhower also had much experience at the highest level of military and diplomatic decision-making.

To varying degrees, they all fell for a strategic vision of the world that was mere fantasy, driven by ideology. Or rather, in Eisenhower’s case and to some extent also in Kennedy’s, they found it politically impossible to resist the demands of those who did live fully within that fantasy. So American foreign policy had little connection with reality for several decades, and a lot of people died.

The point is that this sort of thing happens all the time. The “war on terror” now is functionally almost indistinguishable from the anti-Communist crusade of the 1950s and 1960s, although the actual wars involve much lower levels of casualties. For Vietnam in 1960, read Iraq in 2003—or, perhaps, Iran the day after tomorrow.

It doesn’t only happen to Americans, of course. The various British invasions of Afghanistan in the 19th century were driven by the conviction that the rapacious Russians wanted to seize Britain’s Indian empire, although the thought hadn’t even occurred to the Russians. Germans spent the decade before the First World War worried that they were being “encircled” by the other great powers.

But these delusions mainly afflict the great powers, because weaker countries cannot afford such expensive follies. They have to deal with reality as it is—which is why the Vietnamese Communists, for example, never dreamed of trying to spread their faith across the rest of the region. They were and are pragmatic people with purely local ambitions, so the resolutions of the 11th Party Congress are of little interest to anybody else.

Gwynne Dyer’s new book, Crawling from the Wreckage, was published recently in Canada by Random House.



Joseph Kueber

Jan 14, 2011 at 4:35pm

As fascinating as this is, what exactly does this have to do with current events? The title implies that a connection will be made between the Vietnam War and the War on Terror, but the latter is reduced to a single short paragraph. Such a collumn would be more suitable for a magazine on Military History than a newspaper.

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Joad Cressbeckler

Jan 15, 2011 at 3:03am

Joseph: The article is timely, it's just the headline that's misleading.

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Jan 15, 2011 at 8:25am

I understand the misconceptions angle here, but wouldn't the big difference to today's war on terror be that unlike the Vietnam war, today's enemy is both amorphous and directly threatening to the US and others?

Huge differences.

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Ron Mayer

Jan 16, 2011 at 8:25am

The point of the article is that the "enemy" in both cases is largely an illusion. While they were looking for muslims under their beds, a white guy guns down a member of Congress and a judge and a nine year old girl, along with a bunch of other people in Nevada. Had he been a muslim the US would be looking for another country to invade. As it is there is no mention of the guy being a "terrorist" and on Sarah Palin's map, gun-sights suddenly become surveyor sights - no terrorists here, just us chickens. You might want to recall all the jets that had been hi-jacked to Cuba and the reign of terrorism that festered in Europe through the eighties and nineties. (See "Carlos") Had jet aircraft prior to 2001 had mandated locking cabin doors 9-11 never would've happened. The cause was infantile, dumb. The effects were horrendous. Don't confuse them. Their advanced weaponry was box cutters and incredibly lax airport security. These radicals are not an army of superhumans, they're fairly pathetic, unable to cobble together a functioning shoe or car bomb. Air India was much more effective and Canada hasn't gone to war with anyone over it. They're radicals, potentially nasty and deserving of serious policing, but compared to Oklahoma City? Meanwhile a post assassination gun show does huge business in Nevada, especially in Glock 9mm's and those 20 round clips. Someone was impressed.

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Jan 16, 2011 at 3:38pm

Sure, Gwynne, pick on the commies. Nepotism and corruption isn't prevalent in BC politics. Drugs, protitution and gambling with the politicians turning a blind eye to it and on the take. Whatever, you don't have to look beyond Vancouver to find what you are talking about overseas.

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Jan 16, 2011 at 4:44pm

The delusional threats about communism or terrorism are for public consumption. Foreign policy positions are made on economic considerations like trade and resources, and that is the link between the US policy of decades of war in SouthEast, and now in South Asia. The links discussed here are in the lies told to the public - the Presidents were not deluded at all, they simply played their parts. These wars are not driven by foreign policy delusions of communism or terrorism any more than the gulf wars on Iraq were about WMD. Don't confuse the argument with the issues.

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Jinho Choi

Jan 17, 2011 at 1:09am

The United States have no enemy but their homegrown foreign policy "experts".

These "experts" are ideologue armchair generals who are funded to live in this fantasy world, where there are Reds under your bed and mullahs sitting behind you on an aircraft. There is no "existential threat", and there is no "Enemy". There is only the sound of trillions of tax dollars hitting U.S. corporate offshore bank accounts.

Now, as in the 60s and 70s, American foreign policy is a fantasy, and a lot of people are dying.

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Jan 17, 2011 at 8:45am

Just so I'm clear on this, when the Chinese backed North Korean Communists invaded South Korea in 1950, it was all for public consumption in the western press?

When the USSR initiated the Czech coup in 1948, it was all for public consumption in the western press?

When the Hungarian Uprising was put down by Soviet Troops in 1956, it was all for public consumption by the western masses?

When the "Iron Curtain" of Soviet control was in place from 1946 to 1989, that was really for consumption by the western press, no people were really being controlled by a totalitarian regime and granted little personal freedom?

When the Berlin Wall was raised in 1961, that was really for consumption by the western press?

The USSR's assistance to various terror groups, such as the PLO, Red Army Faction, National Liberation Army of Bolivia, Red Brigades, Direct Action, FARC, Shining Path, ETA, Communist Party of Nepal, the New Peoples Army in the Philippines, etc..., was all for public consumption by the western masses via the press?

And of course Islam is peaceful, and never really invaded anywhere. Charles Martel did not defeat the Muslims in 732 at the battle of Poitiers, and Jan Sobieski did not lead the Polish Army in defeating them at the gates of Vienna in 1683. And all the hijackings and murders committed by terrorists over the last 40 years in the name of Islam were for consumption by the western masses via the press?

Do you really believe that Gwynne's columns critical of the politics of his own government would have been tolerated in East Germany of the 1960's? North Vietnam of that era? How about in China today? He'd be in a gulag somewhere, never to see the light of day again.

Ask yourself, "why weren’t there demonstrations with anti-feudal slogans under feudal rule? And under Stalin, no anti-communist demonstrations? And under Hitler, no anti-fascist demonstrations? In a free capitalist society, anti-capitalist demonstrations are commonplace. Is capitalism really the worst system?"

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petr aardvark

Jan 17, 2011 at 12:42pm

you have some points mitchell44, and I am origitnally from the Czech Republic so I know the history. However, the US gov't played its own game in South America - defending the rights of the United Fruit co.among other examples, or initiated a coup of a democratically elected president in Iran in 53. However by the sixties the threat of the domino effect was disappearing and yet the US leadership and the military and policy advisors were still lagging behind.

Let's face it. The intelligence agencies in the US completely failed to anticipate the fall the Shah in Iran, the fall of the Soviet Union and the Iron Curtain - which was the only the domino effect happened in reverse. They failed in 911. and completely failed in seeing the financial meltdown (which almost happened in 98 with Long Term Capital Management).

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Jan 17, 2011 at 1:51pm


To be fair, the intelligence agencies in every country in the world missed the coming fall of the Soviet Union and the Iron Curtain, even and perhaps most especially their own KGB.

As for Iran, the US saw it coming, but President Carter's administration believed that a new order under a religious leader in place of the Shah would not be all that bad of a deal. Wrong answer Mr Carter, as it's lead to a resurgence of fundamental Islam on the world stage, and a turn away from the secular in countries like Egypt and Turkey. You might even find some of the roots of 9/11 buried in that resurgence.

No one is saying that the US is above reproach, or that they have not made mistakes, but given the world, as it was, after the end of World War II, I'm glad I was in their sphere of influence, rather than the USSR's, or China's.

40 odd years of hindsight does not make the aggression by communist nations in the 40's, 50's, 60's and 70's just disappear. Mr Dyer's failure to include the reality of those threats, and to infer that the leadership of the time was delusional to see those threats and take action against them is dishonest.

Almost as dishonest as trying to infer there is no threat from Islamic terrorism, albeit a much greater one if you happen to be a Christian, or Buddist, or Baha'i, or atheist in a majority muslim country.

2011.01.16 (Baghlan, Afghanistan) - Six women, two men and a child are blown to bits by Taliban bombers while traveling to a wedding.
2011.01.15 (Helmand, Afghanistan) - Six civilians are killed when religious extremists bomb their minivan.
2011.01.15 (Pattani, Thialand) - A young Buddhist math teacher is shot three times in the head by Islamic terrorists.
2011.01.15 (Narathiwat, Thailand) - A 51-year-old man is machine-gunned to death in front of a mosque.
2011.01.14 (Khasavyurt, Dagestan) - Islamists bomb a cafe, leaving two people dead.
2011.01.14 (Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan) - Religion of Peace advocates slaughter a policewoman and her family in her home, including her children.

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