OPINION: Obituary for South Vietnam


OPINION: Obituary for South Vietnam

Obituary for South Vietnam

PETER R. KANN—Wall Street Journal—5/2/1975

South Vietnam, or rather the South Vietnam that I have known for several years, has passed away.

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There probably are a great many Americans who breathed a sigh of relief when they heard the end had come. There undoubtedly are some Americans who wished, for whatever reason, that South Vietnam had expired much sooner. But surely there also are some Americans who mourn the passing. I am one of them.

For me the collapse of South Vietnam was like the death of an old acquaintance. Much as I often criticized South Vietnam I don’t think it deserved to die.




South Vietnam’s faults and failings always were much more visible than its strengths and I, like most reporters, tended to focus at least my professional attention on what South Vietnam was doing wrong. Few societies, and certainly few small and frail ones, ever have been subjected to the degree of sustained critical attention that Vietnam was. I and a thousand other reporters dissected its every aspect, analyzed its every mistake, exposed its every flaw. This is not to say South Vietnam would have fared better or survived longer had the spotlights been turned off, but conceivably there might be a few more sympathizers at the funeral.

In the end, of course, the severest critics and profoundest pessimists proved to be right. South Vietnam may have survived longer than some pessimists expected, but it did collapse—suddenly, chaotically, completely. And I think, tragically.

South Vietnam was, to my mind, no better but no worse than a great many other societies around the world. In at least some ways it was not so very different from our own. Obviously South Vietnam’s social structure, government and army ultimately were too weak to resist the Vietnamese Communists. Less obvious is the thought that South Vietnam did manage to resist for a great many years and not always with a great deal of American help. Few nations or societies that I can think of would have struggled so long.

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It is true that South Vietnam lacked a unifying and motivating cause that could compete with the Communist crusade. Anti-communism never was compelling or even comprehensible to most South Vietnamese Capitalism, as represented by Honda motorbikes and other imported goodies, was not a cause that captured hearts and minds. Nationalism was a contested cause and if only because the American presence had been so great in South Vietnam the Communists seemed to be the true nationalists. So South Vietnam was a country without a cause. But now stop to consider: What cause would motivate you or me to fight for 25 years?

It is true that South Vietnam lacked the kind of creative, dynamic leadership that conceivably might have coaxed more spirit and sacrifice from a war-weary nation. President Nguyen van Thieu was no charismatic statesman. He was an introverted and suspicious military man who proved surprisingly adept at playing palace politics but who never truly learned to lead. But was Mr. Thieu really any less of a leader than scores of other retired generals who rule semi-developed nations around the world? I think not. He was, by his own lights, a Vietnamese patriot. And, before being too hard on failed South Vietnamese leaders, perhaps one ought to stop to list the names of truly popular and successful statesmen anywhere in the non-Communist world today. My own list could be written on a Bandaid.

It is true that South Vietnam’s politicians and people never seemed able to unite, that the society seemed divisive and sounded discordant. Saigon’s chaotic traffic frequently was cited as symbolizing the society’s lack of order and discipline. But what non-Communist society these days can claim any great degree of political unity or social cohesion? Do we, by our values, venerate order and discipline as social goals or moral virtues? Are the best societies really those in which the trains all run on time and the people all march in step?

It is true that South Vietnam never was really democratic. Its democratic institutions, imported from America along with bombs and bulgur wheat, were more show than substance. And yet, if only because the South Vietnamese government never was very efficient, South Vietnam, unlike North Vietnam, never qualified as a totalitarian state. There were political prisoners and torture chambers and other elements of sometimes harsh authoritarianism. But there also were some limitations on the power of the president, there was fairly wide-spread—and not always whispered—criticism of government policies, there was a surprising diversity of individual opinion and behavior. Might South Vietnam have fared better had it been more authoritarian, more rigid and ruthless? I doubt it. But I also doubt that it would have fared better had the legislature exercised more power or had press controls been relaxed.


It is true that South Vietnam was corrupt. The corruption was more widespread and more serious than simply a few fat generals salting away millions in Swiss bank accounts. The whole system was in some sense corrupt. At the lowest level it was a simple matter of government clerks supplementing meager incomes with petty bribes. At a higher level it all too often was a case of jobs being sold to men who could pay rather than given to men who could perform. At the highest levels there were some cases of outright venality. But not all, perhaps not even most, South Vietnamese officers or administrators were corrupt. It is not excusing Vietnamese corruption to point out that it exists to roughly the same degree in almost every Southeast Asian country. Nor is it excusing Asian corruption to note that few Western societies are so pure that they can cast many stones.

It is true that South Vietnamese society was inegalitarian and elitist. Its rich were too rich and its poor too poor and the disparities were all too visible. Money and position bought privileges like draft deferments and, at the end, escape. Yet the disparities in Vietnam actually were less glaring than those in a score of other American-allied states from the Philippines to Brazil. The South Vietnamese peasant, when the war was not being fought in his particular paddy, was a prosperous small farmer by Asian standards. I am not minimizing the misery of the millions who passed through refugee camps when I note that there also were some millions of small farmers who owned their own land and made a fair living from their crops. The South Vietnamese peasant, in short, was not a downtrodden serf waiting for liberation from some slave master.

It also should be said, or confessed if you will, that there were many likeable people among the elite who ruled Vietnam. Almost every reporter who spent any time in the country befriended some government official, army officer, businessman, politician—some member of that elite. These people frequently were all too remote from their own countrymen and countryside. Many were too wealthy or too Western-oriented to have much rapport with peasants or soldiers. They were not the best sort of people according to some biblical, or Buddhist, value scale. But some of them were my friends and I will miss them.

It is true that the South Vietnamese army (ARVN) in the end proved to be no match for the North Vietnamese army. The end was an inglorious six weeks of retreats, routs, chaos, and collapse. Still, the ARVN was not an army of bumblers and cowards. It was an army that stood and fought with great courage and competence on a few occasions you may remember, like the siege of An Loc. It stood and fought well at a score of places whose names we have forgotten. And it stood and fought well in a thousand little engagements and in a thousand little mudwalled outposts whose names no American ever knew.

It was an army of soldiers who deserved better leadership than they got. It was an army that for years watched the Americans try to combat the Communists with every wonder of modern weaponry and which then, all too suddenly, was left to face the Communists with American-style tactics but without American-style resources. It was a Vietnamese army that perhaps never should have been Americanized and thus never would have required Vietnamization. It was an army that for years was ordered to defend every inch of Vietnamese territory and which tried, with greater or lesser success, to do just that. When suddenly it was told to abandon cities and provinces it effectively abandoned the war.

It was not an army of officers and men who tended to charge impregnable enemy positions, or who would have been willing to live for years in holes in the ground with B-52 bombers pounding the earth around them, or who would have made the long and terrible trek down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, or who went into battle motivated by the thought that their almost certain deaths would serve some noble goal. The North Vietnamese army is that kind of army, but how many others, including our own, are fashioned in that mold? The South Vietnamese army was an army of simple soldiers who, without a cause, fought on for more than two decades. Several hundred thousand of these soldiers died. More than half a million were wounded. And, in the final weeks of the war, when every American in Saigon knew the war was lost, some of these soldiers continued to fight at places like Xuan Loc and thereby bought a bit of time for the Americans and their chosen Vietnamese to escape with their lives. It was a much better army than it appeared to be at the end.

It is true that South Vietnam got a great deal of help from America and became too reliant upon us. Soviet and Chinese troops never fought in Vietnam as American troops did. For much of a decade South Vietnam was, for most practical purposes, an American colony. The U.S. army took over the war and for a time promised to win it. The U.S. taxpayer financed Vietnam. Washington set Saigon’s policies and the U.S. Embassy in Saigon largely fashioned Vietnam’s politics. South Vietnam was not always a docile puppet and at times it failed to dance to American tunes. But over the years South Vietnam came to assume, indeed was led to assume, that America was its patron and protector. It was not an unreasonable assumption. Nor then was it entirely unreasonable for Vietnamese to sometimes shrug off responsibility for their own failings, to blame the U.S. for their problems, and, toward the end, when America lost heart for the war and lost interest in Vietnam, to be bitter at America and Americans.


In the end the stronger side won. The Vietnamese Communists had more strength and more stamina. They had a cause, a combination of communism and nationalism, and they pursued that cause with almost messianic motivation. They persisted against all obstacles and at times against all odds and they finally succeeded.

But the stronger side is not necessarily the better side. “Better” becomes a question of values and much as I may respect Communist strength and stamina I cannot accept that the Spartan Communist society of North Vietnam is better than the very imperfect South Vietnamese society that I knew.

This is an obituary for that South Vietnam. It cannot be an obituary for the country of Vietnam or even the people of Vietnam. Countries don’t die. South Vietnam will continue to exist for some months or perhaps a few years with a new government, new policies, a new social system. Then it presumably will merge with North Vietnam and this enlarged Vietnam will dominate Indochina and will become a major force in Asia as a whole. It will be a nation of 40 million hardy and hardened people. It will be rich in natural resources. It will have one of the finest, maybe the finest, army in the world.

Perhaps the energies of 40 million Vietnamese will be devoted to reconstruction and economic progress. Perhaps they will be devoted to further political and military expansion. In either case Vietnam will merit, and probably command, world attention in years ahead. Some South Vietnamese enthusiastically will embrace a new system and new society. Some will have trouble adjusting but eventually will find a place in the new order. Some will be unable to accept the new order, or will be unacceptable to it. They will be discarded in one manner or another, but their children will be brought up to be part of the new society.

The new Vietnam will be powerful and successful and those are the qualities that seem to count among nations, as among men. History books tend to deal with the same themes and history thus is unlikely to look kindly on the South Vietnam that failed to survive. But this is not history. It’s just an obituary for the South Vietnam that I knew.


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