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What US negotiators in North Korea must learn from the Vietnam War

Kim Jong-un shakes hands with Donald Trump at the US-North Korea summit. Photo/Getty Images

As the world watches the US-North Korea summit and its aftermath, Vietnam may provide a salutary lesson of what happens when you fail to understand a country's political tribes.

In Vietnam, the United States lost a war against what President Lyndon Johnson had described as “a piddling pissant little country”. It did so, Yale Law School professor Amy Chua writes in Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations, because it failed to understand the tribal instinct and ethnicity of the country.

The conflict between Vietnam and China goes back more than 2000 years, but the US, blinkered by its loathing for communism, thought that North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh must be a Chinese puppet. In fact, Ho, whose political philosophy derived from Marxism-Leninism, had spent time in Chinese prisons and, like his countrymen in both the north and south, had a deeply ingrained antipathy towards China. “Yet, astonishingly, US policymakers during the Cold War were so oblivious to Vietnamese history that they thought Vietnam was China’s pawn. This was a group-blind mistake of colossal proportions,” Chua says.

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After the fall of Saigon and the US pullout in April 1975, Robert McNamara, who had been US Secretary of Defence to John F Kennedy and Johnson, was told by his former North Vietnamese counterpart that if the Americans had ever read a history book, they would have known that the Vietnamese were never pawns of China.

“Don’t you understand that we have been fighting the Chinese for 1000 years,” McNamara’s opposite number reportedly told him. “We were fighting for our independence. We would fight to the last man and no amount of bombing, no amount of US pressure, would ever have stopped us.”

A Chinese minority who dominated commerce, banking, trade and industry in Vietnam were disliked and resented by the Vietnamese, but once US money started pouring into the war effort, it enriched the Chinese. In 1971, Chua writes, 84% of the direct and indirect importers in Vietnam were Chinese.

The way America waged war in Vietnam was practically designed to turn large segments of the population against it, Amy Chua says. Photo/Getty Images

Aggravating the animosity, Chinese who had stayed out of it as Vietnam fought the French before Vietnam was divided systematically avoided the draft once the war with the Americans started. “In effect, the US-backed regime was asking the South Vietnamese to fight and die and kill their northern brethren in order to keep the Chinese rich.”

Most American soldiers could not distinguish between Chinese and Vietnamese; none would have known about the country’s history. “All Asians were dinks and gooks, slants and slopes,” says Chua. To Vietnamese, the idea that Americans were offering them freedom was absurd. They endured horrific civilian deaths in relentless bombing campaigns. A million people died and more than two million homes were destroyed.

“From a tribal political perspective, virtually every step we took in Vietnam was guaranteed to turn the Vietnamese against us. The regimes we supported, the policies we promoted, the money we spent and the attitudes we brought made Vietnamese hate us, hate capitalism, and only enhanced the appeal and status of the charismatic Ho Chi Minh.” After the US defeat, a brutal ethnic cleansing of Chinese people took place. Rarely was it reported, Chua says, that the “Vietnamese boat people” fleeing in the 1970s were sometimes up to 85% Chinese.

“Thus, Vietnam’s Communist revolution was not only nationalist but intensely ethno-nationalist. We completely missed the heart of political tribalism. Far from being a pawn of Communist China, as the US imagined, Vietnam would by 1979 be at war with China. It would be difficult to come up with a more effective strategy for shooting ourselves in the foot, undermining our own objectives, and maximising popular resistance against us.”

To read more about the rise in political tribalism around the world and how failure to recognise it has led to international catastrophe, pick up the latest issue of the Listener, on newsstands now.

This article is an extract from a feature first published in the June 16, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.