The spectacle of American boys fighting in far-away rice paddies cried out for some geopolitical rationalization
The Vietnamese general who put an end to French rule in his country in 1954, and threw the Americans out of Saigon in 1975, Vo Nguyen Giap, died last week aged 102. But what sort of world was it, in which an underdeveloped nation could twice defeat Western colonialism?
France was exhausted after World War II, and had to defend its positions not only in Southeast Asia, but also more pressingly in North Africa; 1954 witnessed the catastrophe of Dien Bien Phu and the outbreak of rebellion in Algeria, which, unlike Morocco and Tunisia, was classed as national territory of France. But the US, which succeeded France as professed defender of Western interests in that part of the world, was in the 1960s at the height of its power. After years of stepping up its mission, Washington went in up to its neck in 1965.
The spectacle of American boys fighting in far-away rice paddies to sustain a Vietnamese faction against a pro-communist national insurrection, cried out for some geopolitical rationalization for external consumption. Thus was born the domino theory, according to which, if the Vietnamese domino were allowed to fall, the other pieces of French Indochina (Laos and Cambodia) would go the same way, with Thailand, Malaysia, Burma and Indonesia next in line.
The dominos did not behave as the theory predicted
The dominos did not, however, behave as theory predicted. True, a communist regime also took hold in neighboring Cambodia, but as the product of a native insurrection; while in Laos the neutralist leader Souvanna Phouma's almost supernatural balancing act could not be indefinitely sustained. But those dominos were not precisely the ones that the Hanoi regime would have knocked over. In Cambodia, Khieu Samphan headed a regime of extreme communist line, but above all genocidal of its own people, whose independence annoyed the unified Vietnam produced by recent victory. The resulting Vietnamese intervention set up a friendly government in Phnom Penh. But reality was still refractory to a theory of dominos that were not uniformly communist.
China, which did not want any hegemonic power on its southern frontier, invaded Vietnam in 1979. The war amounted to a mere raid on the north of the country, leaving no convincing proof that a "lesson" had been handed to Hanoi, as Beijing trumpeted, and the strategic balance in the region underwent no change at all. Such mutually incompatible strategic aspirations annulled any urge to expansion, so that it was business as usual for the dominos further afield. Malaysia, with an insurrection supported by the ethnic Chinese third of the population, failed to rise to the victory of a Vietnamese communism that felt closer to Moscow out of fear of Beijing; and Burma, or Myanmar, went calmly on with its small-scale multiple conflict with various guerrilla movements, though one of these was philo-Chinese.
The political stabilization of the peninsula soon showed how the Vietnam war, Washington's first drubbing in Asia (counting Korea as a win or draw) had been entirely useless. Some 60,000 US soldiers, as well as two or three million Vietnamese, dead or missing, and the devastation of the land, at a cost of billions of dollars, had not weakened the American superpower, which went one being primus inter pares in the global bipolarity it shared with the USSR. It could not even be said that America's "reputation" - which was the Count-Duke of Olivares' overriding concern when 17th-century Spain poured its lifeblood into far-away wars - had suffered any serious damage.
A different reality is that perceived now in the US, which is trying to withdraw from Afghanistan without leaving behind it the collapse of a sham regime; while forgetting the Iraq adventure, which has only benefited Tehran; and sidestepping the Iranian nuclear problem with the Syrian war as pretext. But there is no intervening continuity of dominos falling one after another. Giap's victories were not precursors of the present low ebb of American power.