Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Cold War Sideshow -- Vietnam as Proxy War

The Vietnam War looms large in this blog, but, lest we forget, it was a proxy war within the global Cold War which reigned from 1945 to 1991. And Vietnam was not the first proxy war (Korea) or the last (the Soviets in Afghanistan) between the United States and the Soviet Union, the dominant superpowers. Because the US and the USSR were armed to the teeth with deadly civilization-ending nukes, the idea was to keep the East-West conflict ‘cold’, i.e., avoid direct combat between the adversaries.

That left open a race for influence in the newly decolonialized Third World. Most often the struggle manifested itself through foreign aid missions – the Soviet ruble vs. the American dollar – but sometimes armed conflict broke out with the superpower adversaries backing rival fighting groups. Ideally, Moscow and Washington preferred to steer their sides in the local wars at arm’s length – through military advisors and weapons deliveries.

Occasionally, however, one side or the other was about to go under and required rescue, as the Soviets did in Afghanistan in ’79 to save the local pro-communist regime, and  then found themselves stuck there for nearly a decade. Likewise of course, Washington found its proxy, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), foundering against the insurgent People’s Liberation Army or Viet Cong (VC), and decided to make the war its own in ’65. And just as the CIA clandestinely fed weapons to the Afghan insurgents, including  Stinger missiles that destroyed so many Soviet helicopter gunships, a decade earlier the USSR had supplied North Vietnam with SAMs, surface-to-air missiles, that brought down many a US fighter bomber in the course of our long entanglement in Southeast Asia.

Vietnam was initially our arm’s length proxy war as part of America’s broad ‘Containment strategy’ to prevent the USSR from expanding its control beyond the frontiers of its Eurasian communist empire. During his first year in office, 1961, President Kennedy (JFK) had suffered a series of setbacks in the Cold War arena – the Bay of Pigs fiasco in Cuba, his poor performance in talks with Khrushchev in Vienna, and the ultimate humiliation of having to stand by as the East German communist regime, with Soviet approval, erected the Berlin Wall to seal off West Berlin.

Seeking a way to reassert his personal authority and US power, JFK settled on the long simmering, low intensity civil war in Vietnam as the place we would show the Soviets our stuff. Vietnam was simply a conflict of convenience for the United States in its ongoing Cold War standoff with Moscow – nothing more. It was a duel of Cold War surrogates – their North Vietnamese Communists against our South Vietnamese nationalists or, as a scholar once put it, their guys against our guys.

After JFK’s assassination, Lyndon Johnson (LBJ) inherited what had already become our Vietnam quagmire. LBJ’s dilemma: our Cold War surrogate was failing, but pulling out would have been politically risky for the President given the strong anti-communist sentiment in the States. Fearing Saigon was on the verge of losing control and that he’d be blamed for losing a country to the communists, LBJ took us in feet first in early ‘65 – sending the first US combat troops into the South while launching a bombing campaign in the North. With troop levels rapidly escalating throughout the year, it soon became an American war.

Three years on in ’68, the Cold War writ large and its Southeast Asian conflict had become inextricably intertwined in policy and public perception. That was a fateful year for both ‘wars’. Early on in January, a crack occurred in Moscow’s East European bloc when a reform Communist, Alexander Dubcek, became leader of the Czechoslovak Communist Party (CP), opening the way to what became known as the ‘Prague Spring’.

That was good news for our side in the Cold War, but was soon overshadowed by the Viet Cong’s surprise Tet Offensive on January 30th. It began with a high profile attack by a VC suicide team against the US Embassy compound during the night. A young American-Vietnamese couple asleep within view of the embassy heard shots, assumed it was another coup attempt at the presidential palace, and went back to sleep. In the morning they learned that the VC had simultaneously attacked over a hundred cities and towns throughout the country.*

The VC assault on the center of American power, although of little military significance, had great symbolic import. While they were quickly defeated nearly everywhere and the national uprising they hoped to provoke did not occur, the VC reaped an unexpected psychological victory. They had emerged from the jungles and boldly struck the heretofore secure urban strongholds of the South Vietnamese regime – the news dramatically flashed across America. General Westmoreland himself was the main US military casualty – having just assured LBJ of a light at the end of the tunnel, his judgment and leadership were now in question, and he was discreetly kicked upstairs to a desk job at the Pentagon.

Just as Tet attacks had been getting underway, killing any remaining illusions about ‘victory’, ex-Vietnam GI Jeff Sharlet was launching Vietnam GI  (VGI) 9,000 miles away in Chicago – an antiwar paper addressed to the GIs fighting the war. The first issue featured Jeff’s long interview with a combat vet who talked about being put on ‘point’, fragging officers, and the GIs’ distrust of the ARVN, topics not usually found in mainstream media coverage of the war. Walking point was the most dangerous position in a patrol, and if “a guy was against the war” or crossed the First Sergeant, he would find himself assigned there. The trooper also spoke of an unpopular officer, thought to be a danger to his men, who was ‘accidentally’ shot and killed during a night ambush. As for ARVN troops, he added that he never met a GI who had any respect for them.

As the Prague Spring began to loosen up the Czech regime, especially in the arts and media, students in neighboring Communist Poland took note. When a Polish apparatchik banned a 19th c. play by Poland’s most distinguished man of letters because of references deemed critical of Russia, students at Warsaw University publicly protested. They were met by police clubs. When on the following day 2,000 students marched in protest of the police action, they too were clubbed and many arrested.

Winter gave way to spring in America as shocking news ran through the country like an electric current – Martin Luther King (MLK), a nonviolent leader of the Civil Rights movement and critic of the Vietnam War, had been assassinated. Dozens of inner-city Black communities erupted in anger and violence, including Chicago where the Army was called in to restore order. About to go to press with its fourth issue in April, VGI bumped the war in Nam off the front page in favor of a lead entitled “War in the States?” Jeff began the piece:   

This country is in real trouble. I say this because from my apartment on the North Side I have watched the West Side burn for the last couple of days. … I caught both Mayor Daley and General Dunn, commanding  general of the Illinois National Guard, on the radio Saturday. They said … the situation had deteriorated … therefore the President was sending in 5,000 Army troops from the 5th Mechanized at [Fort] Carson and the 1st Armored at [Fort] Hood. All together [with the 7,500 National Guardsmen and the 5,500    cops], that’s more manpower than the Marines had at Khe Sanh!

Army convoy in Chicago, Vietnam GI, April ’68

Shortly after in New York, the issues of the Cold War, Vietnam, and racism dramatically converged at Columbia University. Student concerns over the university’s planned expansion into Black and Latino neighborhoods, growing awareness of the science faculties’ secret Cold War research for the Pentagon, and outrage that current efforts included Vietnam War projects, created a perfect storm of protest as militant students took over the president’s office and seized campus buildings. Several students groups were involved in the occupations, although SDS, the Students for a Democratic Society, got the national headlines – at least until the New York City Tactical Police were called in to retake the campus, which they did with nightsticks swinging.

As the Tet Offensive finally petered out in May with the relief of the Khe Sanh Marines and normal academic life resumed at Columbia, an even greater student explosion erupted in Paris at the Sorbonne and the University of Paris, which shook not just a great city, but the government of France itself. French society and youth being highly politicized, it was felt that recent international events had repercussions in Paris -- including the winds of change blowing through Prague, the Warsaw protests, and the student uprisings in the States from the Berkeley Free Speech Movement of ’64 through the takeover at Columbia just weeks before.

Student poster, May ’68, “The Struggle Continues”

The massive Paris uprising involved an array of student groups from Trotskyists and Maoists to Anarchists and even a far right group.  Their issues ranged from university reforms to societal changes to sharp anti-imperialist criticism of both Cold War superpowers. Tens of thousands of students and supporters went into the streets, thousands of riot police mobilized, barricades went up, Molotov cocktails thrown, tear gas fired, and mass arrests made.

When young factory workers went out on wildcat strikes in sympathy and the numbers involved throughout France rose into the millions, the word ‘revolution’ was heard and the government so badly shaken that President De Gaulle briefly fled across the border to a French military base in West Germany.  However, assured of support by the Army, he returned, stood his ground, and announced tough measures and new parliamentary elections, which his party won. The police soon regained the upper hand, retaking the universities, truncheons in hand.

Fast forward to August ’68, a tumultuous month in the Cold War as well as for the Vietnam antiwar movement.  The Prague Spring had steadily advanced since January, liberalizing the Soviet-style regime, but not without growing concerns in Moscow that Dubcek and the CP were losing control of the flowering Czech civil society. Grumbling was also heard from the neo-Stalinist East German camp as well as from the Polish comrades to the north that the Czech reforms were threatening to destabilize their party systems.

Finally, during the night of August 21st, the Soviet Union and its East European Warsaw Pact allies set in motion a large scale, surprise invasion of Czechoslovakia, aiming to suppress the subversive reform process. Soviet troops arrested the principal reformers, hauling them off to Moscow to face the angry Soviet leadership. In the dock with Dubcek was his close comrade Zdenek Mlynar, a driving force behind the liberalizing reforms, whom I had interviewed in Prague in ’64 when he was then a young, upcoming philosopher of law.

Soviet tanks entering Prague, August 1968
A few days later, while the Soviets were carrying out what was euphemistically called ‘normalization’ in the Czech capital, the Democratic Presidential Convention opened in Chicago. In anticipation, SDS and the New Left had for months been planning major antiwar demonstrations in the city. At the time, Jeff was on the cusp of putting the next issue of VGI to bed. Hearing the hot rhetoric coming from the protest planners and Chicago City Hall, where the mayor made clear his intention of blocking street protests, Jeff foresaw a major confrontation. To avoid the VGI operation becoming collateral damage at the hands of the Chicago Red Squad under cover of mayhem, he and Jim Wallihan decamped to the San Francisco Bay Area to finish editing the forthcoming issue.

Predictably, the 10,000 antiwar marchers were met head-on by the Chicago police backed up by Army troops and the National Guard. The demonstration began peacefully, but the cops attacked with unbridled force, beating some protestors unconscious, and a series of major clashes ensued. By the end of the week, 600+ demonstrators had been arrested, over a thousand injured, including policemen, with 111 protestors and 49 cops requiring hospital treatment. Much of the Chicago street melee with the demonstrators chanting “The whole world is watching,” had been televised live nationwide. A later inquiry dubbed the violence a ‘police riot’.

The year ’68 could well be called the Year of the Baton, the police baton, as heads were cracked in Warsaw, New York, Paris, Chicago, Prague, indeed globally, as cities, countries, and empires struggled to maintain the status quo. The historical calendar, however, records ‘68 as near mid-point in America’s war in Vietnam as well as in the long Cold War, the overarching framework of Vietnam as a proxy war. Just over a half dozen years later, the Vietnam War would pass into history,  while the Cold War, the master narrative of the second half of the last century, continued on its often dangerous course for almost another quarter of a century.

*Duong Van Mai Elliott, The Sacred Willow: Four Generations in the Life of a Vietnamese Family (1999), 330.

† Jeff and Jim stayed with Joe Carey who had moved to the Bay Area. See

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