Enduring lessons from Vietnam's 'Hell'

The folly of going along with policies that don't withstand basic critical thinking.
Crosscut archive image.

Bernard Fall, reporting in Vietnam

The folly of going along with policies that don't withstand basic critical thinking.

I've recently reread Indochina scholar Bernard Fall's classic, Hell in a Very Small Place (Lippincott, 1966), an account of the siege of Dien Bien Phu in Indochina. That event caused France to abandon the region and shook the country's politics for years thereafter. It also set in motion events culminating in the United States' withdrawal from the same region after incurring 58,000 dead, many more wounded, billions of dollars spent, and the same effects domestically that had taken place earlier in France.

My copy is a first edition. I first read it while serving in the Johnson administration, when the United States was seriously escalating the war in Vietnam. The book related how France's most distinguished military commanders, and their civilian superiors, made one stupid miscalculation after another when the Viet Minh, led by Ho Chi Minh, were on the verge of suing for peace. They transformed looming victory into ignominous defeat.

Reading Fall's book in 1966, I could see the French leaders' and commanders' counterparts in such figures as Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, White House national security advisers McGeorge Bundy and Walt Rostow, and Gen. William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam. They, too, were espousing strategy and tactics that seemed transparently foolish. Yet President Johnson (as President Kennedy before him and President Nixon after) bought into their terms of reference and recommendations.

When voters threw us Democrats out in 1968, I resolved that I would never again be patient or tolerant regarding recommendations or policies that might have establishment support but which any measure of critical thinking would quickly discredit. As it turned out, Gerald Ford would be president before the U.S. finally departed Vietnam.

After the French withdrawal from Indochina, the 1954 Geneva Accords provided that national elections would be held in Vietnam and the country unified under the winners. We and our allies, however, feared the election outcome and threw our weight behind a puppet South Vietnamese regime in Saigon. You know the rest of that story.

But such foolishness is not limited to national security decisions or to the Vietnam era. Remember President George W. Bush's plan to fully or partially privatize Social Security? The Clinton administration's Hillarycare proposal which could not get even Democratic congressional support and had to be withdrawn?

All of which brings me to the prime local example of this kind of folly: the hugely expensive Sound Transit light rail system which will carry relatively few passengers, at prohibitive cost (right now, $23 billion, to be raised wholly from regressive taxes, for a three-county system), while more cost-effective bus transit would carry far more passengers at far less cost. I find even more maddening Mayor Mike McGinn's plan to expand this system to Westside Seattle neighborhoods not now scheduled for it.

Similar indefensible conduct is taking place in Olympia, where Gov. Chris Gregoire and the legislature lack the guts to close the present budget gap by removing special-interest tax loopholes and, instead, they keep looking for new regressive taxes to levy on ordinary citizens. One more example, for good measure: The decision by Seattle public schools, supported by an elected school board, to introduce wacky new math textbooks into the curriculum.

Public- and private-sector big shots do not always hold their positions because they are wise or large-minded. Often they are there because of their fierce ambitions, their bureaucratic skills, or just plain blind luck. There often is no correlation between high position and common sense. Regard the Wall Street Masters of the Universe who have brought low our financial system and real economy. Remember, too, that Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush served in the presidency and that Spiro Agnew, Dan Quayle, John Edwards, and Sarah Palin were or nearly became vice president.

Hell in a Very Small Place is still around and still a good and pertinent read. Its bottom line: Think for yourself. Don't trust anyone simply because of his or her title or status.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.