Contributor Post Created with Sketch. Christopher Hitchens Replies: The Background…And My Answer

 

[Editor’s Note: This post was published earlier this year, but we’re re-posting it once more as a tribute to our late friend Christopher Hitchens.]

Below, I posted a reply from Christopher Hitchens.  Here, a word about what Hitch was replying to—and my reply to him.

Just over five years ago, I recorded an episode of Uncommon Knowledge with Christopher Hitchens (to whom, let the record show, I am personally devoted) on Hitch’s support for the war in Iraq.  At one point in the program, I attempted to probe an inconsistency in Hitch’s position.  Hitch instantly denied that any such inconsistency existed.  Below, our exchange:

ROBINSON:  Why should you oppose totalitarianism in the Middle East, which is what you called—one of the words you’ve used—for Islamist approach in the Middle East.  Why would you oppose totalitarianism in the Middle East, but support the totalitarian intentions of the Vietcong toward the South Vietnamese?  Why should you have considered American involvement in Vietnam imperialist when you consider the American involvement in Iraq liberationist?

HITCHENS:  Well that’s easy…

ROBINSON:  Okay.  Happy to hear it.

HITCHENS:  Well, for one thing, I think the Vietcong in many ways were the South Vietnamese.  There is no doubt in my mind now, there wasn’t then, that the revolution in South Vietnam was, well, part of the old Vietnamese revolution.  I don’t think there were ever two states in Vietnam.  That’s an artificial partition imposed by the superpowers.

ROBINSON:  So this is the argument…

HITCHENS:  And the Vietnamese revolution, among other things, cut with the grain.  First, with the reunification of the country and second with the expulsion of foreign colonial forces.  It was the continuation of the struggle that began before the Second World War.  

ROBINSON:   But the problem is there were Vietnamese who got expelled as well.  How do you handle the Boat People in that argument?  

HITCHENS:  Well, I believe myself that had it never been subjected to a quarter century of imperialist war that there wouldn’t have been a large amount of this terrible suffering in Vietnam.  

ROBINSON:  So your argument then is the…

HITCHENS:  But I…you force me to say, and I will say, with great reluctance, so as not to seem to be avoiding your question, that terrible as the sufferings of the boat people were—I’ve been in Vietnam and talked to many of them, many of whom have come back by now—it’s nothing to the near-destruction of the whole ecology and society of Vietnam, the planned destruction of it by American imperialism in the 1960s.  That was a very serious war crime and a very serious political crime too.

ROBINSON:  Alright, so that’s…why is that imperialism?

HITCHENS:  Well, because it’s the direct descendent of the French colonial enterprise.  The American intervention—invasion, I should say—in Vietnam is designed to rescue the French possession, which is disgraceful…

ROBINSON:  Certainly not.  Roosevelt leans on Churchill.  Part of the reason they are cold to each other, or much less warm than they were originally, by the end of the Second World War is that Roosevelt will have nothing to do with colonialism.

HITCHENS:  How right you are.

ROBINSON:  Eisenhower refuses to permit the Suez invasion to go forward and, by the time it comes to Vietnam, they’re not trying to prop up any imperialist French colonial venture.  They’re trying to stop the Communists in China and the Soviet Union.

HITCHENS:  Everything you say there that’s right is that Roosevelt was opposed to, not just imperialism in general, but very opposed to French colonialism in Indochina.  It’s fascinating to speculate what might have happened if Roosevelt had been around for the post-war, certainly.  But the facts cannot be other than what they are.  The United States offered, at one point, to use nuclear weapons to defend the French position in Vietnam.  It was paying for the cost of the French war, until the shattering defeat at Dien Bien Phu, from which it did not learn, and it then took over the French colonial role, including…the imperialist partition of the country was an operation that deserved to be defeated.

Just under two weeks ago, Ricochet member Michael Labeit put up a post about this very exchange:

While perusing Hoover’s library I stumbled upon this gem: a conversation between Peter Robinson and Christopher Hitchens on past and contemporary American foreign policy.  What interested me in particular was Hitchens’ assertion that the American campaign in Vietnam was not intended primarily to contain the spread of communism/socialism…but rather that its purpose was to salvage French imperialism….I wonder what my fellow members think about this, if they have any thoughts?

Michael’s fellow Ricochet members did indeed have thoughts.  Overwhelmingly, we found Hitch’s assertion impossible to swallow.  (I’m bound to note, though, that in post after post Ricochet members displayed respect, and even affection, for Hitch.  As Rob Long put it:  “[I]t’s a stretch to think that our involvement in Vietnam was to salvage French imperialism; we abandoned European imperialism a few years before than, when Eisenhower allowed the Suez crisis to run its course—but Hitchens is never boring, never puerile, and always bracing.”

Which brings to me to the day before yesterday, when I discovered this message in my inbox:

Dear Peter,

May I use this means [here he attached the reply I have already posted] to join your discussion on the late unpleasantness in Indochina?  Sorry that I only recently became aware of it….As always, and with love to your tribe.

Christopher

I registered a thrill of delight—both that Christopher had become aware of Ricochet and that he was hale enough to produce such prose, remaining, completely himself.  Since I myself was running a fever that made it difficult to stare at a computer screen, though, I was unable to share Christopher’s message here on Ricochet until this afternoon.

How do I reply?  By making a few points, the first of which is that Christopher has cleared matters up.  

On Uncommon Knowledge, as we have just seen, Hitch claimed that the American intervention in Vietnam was “the direct descendant of the French colonial enterprise.  The American intervention—invasion—I should say—in Vietnam [was]…designed to rescue the French possession, which is disgraceful.”

At the time, that struck me (to use the word I employed in a Ricochet post) as “silly.”  The French suffered the critical military defeat at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954, and the next month, in the Geneva Agreements, France surrendered its possessions in Indochina outright, granting them independence.  In our exchange, Christopher seemed to suggest that the United States, which was still fighting in Vietnam almost two decades later, wished only to hand Vietnam right back to Paris.  In his reply, Hitch makes it clear that he was speaking about the origins of American involvement.  Which means that his point, I am perfectly happy to grant, is indeed non-silly.

But still not quite correct.

If the first American involvement took the form of propping up the French, that was a means, not an end.  Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower—these were men who had no truck with European colonialism.  What moved them—the end they had always in mind—was containing Communism.

Here Hitch says in effect, Well, then, more fools they.  What Ho Chi Minh wanted was Vietnamese independence.

christopher_hitchens.jpgAh, but this is merely the old trope.  If Ho Chi Minh wanted independence, Fidel Castro wanted to overthrow the corrupt regime of Fulgenico Batista—and, for that matter, Lenin wanted to consummate the revolution of 1905.  Over and over again, Communism battened on legitimate movements and aspirations, seeking to advance them, at least in part, but also seeking to use them as cover for a specifically Communist agenda.  Ho Chi Minh did indeed pick up the pieces of the Vietnamese struggle for independence that began before the Second World War—indeed, that had expressed itself in outbreaks during the nineteenth century.  But Ho Chi Minh was also a Communist.  The United States made error after error in Vietnam, but not in supposing that Ho had allied himself with our enemies.

My final point?  That I cannot permit Hitch’s assertion that the war was “lost” as early as 1954 to go unchallenged.  The French certainly lost in that year.  And Gen. William Westmoreland seems to have done his best to squander vast resources, and do largely useless damage to Vietnam, when he commanded American forces in the mid-sixties.  But then came Gen. Creighton Abrams, and, the more I read, the more I incline to the conclusion that Gen. Abrams very nearly won the war on the ground.  The war was finally lost 1974—twenty years later than Christopher supposes—not on the ground but in Washington, when Congress cut military aid to South Vietnam.

I will now send all this to Hitch, offering him the last word.  As Rob says, Hitch is always—always—worth reading.

There are 22 comments.

  1. Robert Bennett Inactive

    Well if it hasn’t crossed your mind yet, this would be a perfect discussion to be continued on the podcast….Episode on Vietnam one week would be pretty interesting.

    • #1
    • December 10, 2010, at 3:42 AM PST
    • Like
  2. Scott R Member
    Scott R Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    The problem with Hitchens is his hyper-attentiveness to the supposed left-right distinction in assessing despotic, statist governments. He was painfully slow to see the evil of the left-wing Castro, for example, but was instinctively and rightly supportive of Britain in the Falklands against a right-wing Argentina.

    In truth (see Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism) the left-right political continuum is a false one: The more useful continuum has human freedom on one side, tyranny on the other, and Hitchens, for all his brilliance, has been slow to grasp this point.

    But he’s getting there.

    • #2
    • December 10, 2010, at 4:14 AM PST
    • Like
  3. Profile Photo Member

    Well, we all see things through our own lens. Hitchens was weaned on Marxist doctrine about the evils of imperialism, so he sees a certain continuity between French imperialism and American motives.

    But the fact is that by the time the United States became involved in Southeast Asia, the Soviet Union’s expansionist designs were abundantly clear – Eastern Europe, Greece, China, Korea – the threat was crystal clear.

    One man’s freedom-fighter against Western imperialism is another man’s Communist guerilla, trained and armed by the Comintern.

    • #3
    • December 10, 2010, at 4:16 AM PST
    • Like
  4. Lucy Pevensie Inactive

    I just want to echo Jan-Michael Rives above, in saying that when Mr. Hitchens says “I’ve been in Vietnam and talked to many of [the Boat People], many of whom have come back by now,” he displays an enormous amount of ignorance.

    I’ve been to Vietnam a couple of times, too, and I’ve also talked to MANY Viet Kieu (overseas Vietnamese) and worked and been to school and been friends with MANY boat people, and they don’t go back. Their kids may go back for visits; some of them are over the fear and bitterness enough to go back for visits themselves, but they really don’t move back. Some later refugees may move back, but the Boat People, in large numbers, don’t move back. Instead, 50,000 of them in Orange County alone are still angry enough to turn out to protest when someone puts up a picture of Ho Chi Minh in a store window.

    When I feel guilty about the Viet Nam war, it is about abandoning our friends in the South.

    • #4
    • December 10, 2010, at 4:35 AM PST
    • Like
  5. Jan-Michael Rives Inactive

    I’m embarrassed to have to sycophantically refer to Moyar again and again, but he has the distinction of being the only historian whose claims are upheld by actual Vietnamese refugees. I can only assume that Mr. Hitchens has never had the opportunity to ask these people (who overwhelmingly have opted not to return to Vietnam, despite his claim to the contrary) what their opinion is of the war. Moyar sums it up neatly in our own NRO (edited for brevity):

    “Halberstam, Sheehan, and Karnow had a low opinion of president Diem and decided that he needed to be removed. They gave Diem’s opponents in the U.S. government negative information on Diem, most of it false, owing to their heavy reliance on a Reuters stringer named Pham Xuan An who was actually a secret Communist agent.

    After Diem’s assassination, the South fared very poorly in their war against the Communists, which was why we had to send 500,000 troops to Vietnam. Newly available American and Vietnamese Communist sources show that the South was fighting very well, and that their performance plummeted after the coup because the new rulers purged suspected Diem loyalists and failed to lead.”

    • #5
    • December 10, 2010, at 4:52 AM PST
    • Like
  6. Jan-Michael Rives Inactive
    Peter Robinson

    Here Hitch says in effect, Well, then, more fools they. What Ho Chi Minh wanted was Vietnamese independence.

    Ah, but this is merely the old trope. If Ho Chi Minh wanted independence, Fidel Castro wanted to overthrow the corrupt regime of Fulgenico Batista—and, for that matter, Lenin wanted to consummate the revolution of 1905.

    Ho Chi Minh we know was a hardline Marxist-Leninist who fought in the Chinese National Revolutionary Army. Vietnam is and has always been a vassal state of China, fighting a total of three wars in the past thousand years, including the anomalous 1979 conflict (long after Ho Chi Minh’s death) spurred by the Vietnamese government’s mistreatment of ethnic Chinese living in Vietnam at the time. Diem, it must be acknowledged, was the real nationalist of the two.

    • #6
    • December 10, 2010, at 5:17 AM PST
    • Like
  7. True Blue Inactive

    By his own admission, Hitchens was, and is, a communist (or a Trotskyist for those interested in the taxonomy of the left-wing bestiary). So he argues in favor of communism and communists. He doesn’t like Islamists, not because he abhors their totalitarianism but because he opposes theocracy and religion. If the Islamists were secular communists, he would view them like he views the Viet Cong, as a force for good. His position seems pretty consistent to me. “Imperialism=fighting against communist totalitarianism abroad” and “a noble cause=fighting religious totalitarianism abroad.”

    • #7
    • December 10, 2010, at 5:29 AM PST
    • Like
  8. Peter Robinson Founder
    Peter Robinson
    Scott Reusser: The problem with Hitchens is his hyper-attentiveness to the supposed left-right distinction in assessing despotic, statist governments. He was painfully slow to see the evil of the left-wing Castro, for example, but was instinctively and rightly supportive of Britain in the Falklands against a right-wing Argentina.

    In truth (see Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism) the left-right political continuum is a false one: The more useful continuum has human freedom on one side, tyranny on the other, and Hitchens, for all his brilliance, has been slow to grasp this point.

    But he’s getting there. · Dec 9 at 3:14pm

    Wow. You’ve got Christopher–just got him.

    • #8
    • December 10, 2010, at 5:43 AM PST
    • Like
  9. Jan-Michael Rives Inactive
    Scott Reusser:

    In truth (see Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism) the left-right political continuum is a false one: The more useful continuum has human freedom on one side, tyranny on the other, and Hitchens, for all his brilliance, has been slow to grasp this point.

    But he’s getting there. · Dec 9 at 3:14pm

    I don’t know… he’s been pretty openly hostile to the North Korean regime despite their leftism. Indeed one of the points he often makes is that countries like North Korea and Iran are infantilizing because of their liberalism, treating citizens as wards of the state.

    • #9
    • December 10, 2010, at 5:55 AM PST
    • Like
  10. Lucy Pevensie Inactive

    One more point: it is somewhat naive for Mr. Hitchens to think that people will necessarily speak honestly with a foreign journalist in a country where the international newspapers still come with holes where certain stories have been physically cut out. That was at least the case in 2002, and I have not heard that it has changed.

    I’d like to add that I hope my remarks are taken as respectful disagreement with someone for whom I have great admiration, gratitude, and sympathy.

    • #10
    • December 10, 2010, at 5:57 AM PST
    • Like
  11. Paul Stinchfield Member
    Paul Stinchfield Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    ROBINSON: But the problem is there were Vietnamese who got expelled as well. How do you handle the Boat People in that argument?

    HITCHENS: Well, I believe myself that had it never been subjected to a quarter century of imperialist war that there wouldn’t have been a large amount of this terrible suffering in Vietnam.

    Has Mr. Hitchens forgotten the communist oppression and killing that occurred in the 1950’s, before and after the original partition into North and South Vietnam? The near-million Vietnamese who fled the North after the 1954 partition? The inconvenient truth is that the Vietnamese communists were just as much Stalinist monsters as were their comrades in Russia and China.

    • #11
    • December 10, 2010, at 7:03 AM PST
    • Like
  12. Profile Photo Member

    From what I know, Hitchens acquits himself of the crimes of communism/socialism by allying himself with the Trotskyist, anti-Stalinist Left. It seems, according to him, the far Right is by definition totalitarian but enough distinctions exist on the far Left to warrant caution about identifying it as totalitarian as well.

    • #12
    • December 10, 2010, at 7:38 AM PST
    • Like
  13. Leslie Watkins Member
    Leslie Watkins Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    My earlier comments didn’t have to do with Vietnam, as I have no real understanding of those issues, but the conversation reminded me of my own difference of opinion with Hitchens about the tea party folks, specifically, his roughly broad brush in describing their motivations and fears (talk about a trope: fear of the other, as if this were 1984 rather than 2010!). I personally think Mr. Jefferson no doubt had many friends like those portrayed as illiterate dummies by the sophomoric, ridiculing media—a form of propaganda that my idol does not see—and that Jefferson would have applauded their motives (if not their verse). Of course this is personal for me. Though I have not attended a tea party rally, I very much support their efforts, as I did the Danes in front of their embassy in DC in early 2006, having driven there on the spur of the moment from the Carolina Piedmont to show my solidarity. I spoke to Hitchens very briefly that day. And I guess I’d still like to be considered a sister, though my brother dismisses me from afar.

    • #13
    • December 10, 2010, at 7:51 AM PST
    • Like
  14. Maurilius Member
    Maurilius Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    In Hitch’s defense, as he covers in Hitch-22, the seemingly major cause of his split with the left was his realization that they would support a left-leaning regime regardless of the evils perpetuated by that regime, while he thought the actual evil deserved some consideration.

    Equally that they would oppose a conservative administration even when that administration was doing good, while he thought the good stuff might be worth supporting.

    Certainly he’s been a man who “contains multitudes,” but I think he’s among the best of us, and I’m devastated by the seeming nearness of his demise.

    • #14
    • December 10, 2010, at 8:33 AM PST
    • Like
  15. Scott R Member
    Scott R Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member
    Michael Labeit: From what I know, Hitchens acquits himself of the crimes of communism/socialism by allying himself with the Trotskyist, anti-Stalinist Left. It seems, according to him, the far Right is by definition totalitarian but enough distinctions exist on the far Left to warrant caution about identifying it as totalitarian as well. · Dec 9 at 6:38pm

    Ya, definitely. But in reality Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Saddam, Pol Pot etc. are all nice and snug on the same side of the political spectrum.

    • #15
    • December 10, 2010, at 9:31 AM PST
    • Like
  16. Gaby Charing Inactive

    “Over and over again, Communism battened on legitimate movements and aspirations, seeking to advance them, at least in part, but also seeking to use them as cover for a specifically Communist agenda”. You need to have been on the left to understand fully the truth of that statement. Thank you!

    • #16
    • December 18, 2011, at 2:06 AM PST
    • Like
  17. Robert Bennett Inactive

    I still think about these posts we had on Vietnam last year as some of the most memorable. Although I still can’t explain why Vietnam was not considered containment.

    • #17
    • December 18, 2011, at 5:08 AM PST
    • Like
  18. flownover Inactive

    We are discussing his words , throwing questions into the ether and returning with answers , and as long as this dialogue continues then Hitch attains some immortality . Neat trick for an atheist . Clever man.

    • #18
    • December 18, 2011, at 5:43 AM PST
    • Like
  19. Ignatius J. Reilly Inactive

    Strange is the imperialist who endows, rather than extracts from, his colonies…

    • #19
    • December 18, 2011, at 6:39 AM PST
    • Like
  20. Gaby Charing Inactive

    The discussion is fascinating. Hitchens is wrong about the motive for 9/11. It wasn’t the first step in an Islamist takeover of the USA. It was a move in their attempt to dominate the world’s existing Muslims, by showing how powerful, resourceful & audacious they could be, and to goad the US into fighting back in a war which they could present as an attack on all Muslims, and believed moreover they could win. Gingrich sees this, Hitchens doesn’t seem to. Both see the absolute need for the US fight back, and win. Hitchens’ apparent belief that is part of an attempt to impose sharia on Americans (they’d love to, of course, but they are not idiots and know they can’t) is not astute politically, but feeds directly into his simplistic atheism – such a waste of his talent, and so puerile and divisive.

    • #20
    • December 18, 2011, at 9:43 AM PST
    • Like
  21. Dan Hanson Thatcher
    Dan Hanson Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    You could make the argument that U.S. support of French Imperialism was a root cause of the war, but to do so you have to go back much further – to the Versailles peace talks after WWI. At that time, Ho Chi Minh asked America to help free Vietnam from the yoke of French imperialism (even invoking the language of the American Constitution), but was rebuffed.

    After Versailles, Minh moved to France, and began studying communism. He became fully radicalized after that point. It’s interesting to speculate what might have happened had the U.S. supported Vietnamese independence at Versailles. But of course, that’s some serious hindsight – the U.S. did not become involved in Vietnam for decades after, with another World War in between. It’s also a bit much to have expected the U.S. to abandon a major ally right after a World War in favor of a small poor country in Indochina.

    However, it’s abundantly clear that by the time the U.S. involved itself in Vietnam, the purpose was not to support French Colonialism, but to contain the spread of communism in the far east.

    • #21
    • December 19, 2011, at 1:06 AM PST
    • Like
  22. K T Cat Inactive

    I get the feeling that Hitchens’ life revolved completely around Hitchens. I’ve read some of his atheism stuff and it seems totally motivated by self-gratification. Sex and booze, as much as he wants, and no one should tell him no. The logic isn’t terribly interesting; he can’t suggest a motivation for anything, including writing his books and appearing on talk shows. He’s just one bag of atoms vibrating at other bags of atoms.

    The eulogies I read from those who knew him suggest that, like Bill Clinton, he was a tremendously charming swine, but a swine nonetheless.

    Am I wrong? Did he work in the atheistic equivalent of prison ministries or something of that sort?

    • #22
    • December 19, 2011, at 2:26 AM PST
    • Like