How strange it is that, on April 30, the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War — resulting in the victory of a tiny Asian country over the mightiest nation on earth, the United States — should have gone practically unnoticed here. This event of staggering significance (someone had written at the time that it was akin to “a butterfly having the better of a rogue elephant in combat”) merited attention, especially because India has always empathised with the Vietnamese. Even when we badly needed American food and financial aid, the food more than the cash. Two months after becoming prime minister in 1966, Indira Gandhi went to Washington to seek it without appearing to do so. Her top advisors counselled her to tell President Lyndon Baines Johnson that India “shared America’s agony over Vietnam”. She refused. All she was prepared to say to LBJ was: “India understands your agony”.
The American commitment on the supply of wheat under the US’s Public Law 480, on heavily deferred rupee payment, was generous. But complications arose soon. On returning home via Moscow, Gandhi discovered the apparent softening of her Vietnam policy was under attack in both the Soviet Union and India. LBJ, for whom the war against the communists of North Vietnam was a crusade, chose that moment to start bombing Hanoi and Haiphong. India demanded that this bombing stop. LBJ retaliated by putting the supply of food on such a tight leash that we had to live almost literally from ship to mouth. When his own ambassador in Delhi, Chester Bowles, pointed out the Indians were saying nothing different from what the pope and the secretary general of the UN were, the tall Texan retorted: “The pope and the secretary general don’t need our wheat.”
Americans arrived on the Vietnamese scene rather late, stayed too long, killed and burnt with napalm too many men, women and children (by the war’s end, 58,000 Americans and 2,50,000 Vietnamese had been slaughtered), and finally, were thrown out ignominiously. But the story had begun much earlier. In 1954, North Vietnam’s legendary General Vo Nguyen Giap defeated the French colonial troops at the famous strategic spot, Dien Bien Phu, as decisively as he was to vanquish the Americans and their South Vietnamese protégés at Saigon 21 years later.
An important feature of the Vietnam War is that it was the first televised war in the world. People saw its horrors on TV screens, in their drawing rooms. No wonder, then, that a war that had initially attracted little criticism became the most denounced and hated. The opposition to this “dirty war” was global. But it was arguably the most virulent within the US, where crowds chanted: “Hey, hey, LBJ. How many kids have you killed today?” John F. Kennedy was the first US president to send troops to help the “poor South Vietnamese”. But he had no intention of going to war in that distant land. It was LBJ who staged the fraudulent “Gulf of Tonkin” incident to get authority from Congress to declare war on North Vietnam. The number of US troops eventually reached nearly half a million. A big village like My Lai was razed to the ground; a US spokesman blandly declared: “It was necessary to destroy the whole village to save it from communism.”
On April 30, 1975, when Saigon was liberated, TV and next morning’s newspapers showed large groups of Americans, soldiers and civilians, on the roof of the US embassy, waiting to be rescued by their country’s military helicopters. As each helicopter was overfilled and rose a few feet, dozens clung to its skids and jumped down on aircraft carriers before the chopper could land.
Remarkably, there was a brief ceremony in Washington on the 40th anniversary of the “fall of Saigon”. Far more importantly, in Ho Chi Minh City, the Americans joined the elaborate celebrations by the Vietnamese. In the former US embassy, now the consulate-general, wreaths were placed on the graves of the last two American soldiers killed in Vietnam. As is rightly said, there are no permanent friends and no permanent enemies. The two former enemies, the US and Vietnam, are now good friends. Vietnam’s main source of trouble is China, especially its maritime claims on Vietnamese waters.
The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator
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