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

by Joanne Black / 12 June, 2018
Kim Jong-un shakes hands with Donald Trump at the US-North Korea summit. Photo/Getty Images

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

RelatedArticlesModule - US North Korea vietnam war

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.

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 those populations against it, Amy Chua says. Photo/Getty Images

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.

Latest

Excavated cult-horror film Suspiria is an ambitious failure
98994 2018-11-14 00:00:00Z Movies

Excavated cult-horror film Suspiria is an ambitiou…

by James Robins

Released in 1977, Dario Argento’s campy Suspiria was a landmark in cult horror. Now, director Luca Guadagnino has remade it in a new style.

Read more
Scottish-Bengali crime writer Abir Mukherjee on his 'cultural schizophrenia'
98517 2018-11-14 00:00:00Z Books

Scottish-Bengali crime writer Abir Mukherjee on hi…

by Craig Sisterson

Abir Mukherjee uses India’s painful struggle for independence as the backdrop for his Sam Wyndham detective stories.

Read more
Lunchtime legends: 5 hospo stalwarts on Auckland's restaurant evolution
93848 2018-11-14 00:00:00Z Auckland Eats

Lunchtime legends: 5 hospo stalwarts on Auckland's…

by Alice Neville

Restaurant veterans Chris Rupe, Krishna Botica, Tony Adcock, Geeling Ching and Judith Tabron reflect on the Auckland dining scene.

Read more
Best Auckland BYO restaurants where the food is good too
97751 2018-11-14 00:00:00Z Auckland Eats

Best Auckland BYO restaurants where the food is go…

by Metro

Head to one of these Metro Top 50 Cheap Eats and 50 under $50 restaurants for BYO dining that won't break the bank.

Read more
Get a lesson in mezcal at new Snickel Lane bar La Fuente
99033 2018-11-14 00:00:00Z Auckland Eats

Get a lesson in mezcal at new Snickel Lane bar La …

by Jean Teng

Mezcal was once regarded as a tipple for the lower-class – now it's the hero at new bar La Fuente.

Read more
Forget the love trysts, our relationship with China is a much bigger affair
98673 2018-11-13 00:00:00Z Politics

Forget the love trysts, our relationship with Chin…

by Bevan Rapson

Ross’s tape didn’t stand up his allegations of electoral fraud, but it helpfully drew renewed attention to questions about Chinese influence in NZ.

Read more
Bill Ralston: Simon Bridges looks like a dead man walking
98830 2018-11-13 00:00:00Z Politics

Bill Ralston: Simon Bridges looks like a dead man …

by Bill Ralston

The National Party’s ongoing ructions suggest a long spell in the wilderness lies ahead.

Read more
The history of NZ newspapers would shame the Facebook generation
98735 2018-11-13 00:00:00Z History

The history of NZ newspapers would shame the Faceb…

by Karl du Fresne

In the 19th century, there were more newspapers in New Zealand per head of population than anywhere else in the world says writer Ian F Grant.

Read more