Contributor Post Created with Sketch. Christopher Hitchens Replies

 

Dear Ricochet,

I was naturally flattered to have my opinions on the origin of the Vietnam conflict taken so seriously in your recent postings. But this feeling gave way to a sense of bewilderment as I read further. Is it really controversial, anywhere, to assert that United States support for French colonialism was at the root of the disaster? One of your contributors thought it vastly sarcastic to picture “LBJ cozying up to de Gaulle.” Peter Robinson felt that to mention the French empire in the same breath as almost any ex-President was merely “silly.” 

I have to ask myself, and your readers, whether certain facts are simply unknown to them, or known but considered somehow irrelevant. Admittedly, by the time that Charles de Gaulle made his famous speech in Phnom Penh in the mid-1960s, warning LBJ and others that their efforts in Vietnam were foredoomed, the main damage had long been done. But any irony there is not at my expense. And it doesn’t seem to be the point being made, or rather missed, in the exchange so far.

Can anybody offer to controvert the following assertions?

French Indochina was maintained as a colonial system by Vichy France, in collaboration and sometimes in competition with Imperial Japan, until 1945. In that year, the British General Gracey aroused protests across Asia by occupying Saigon, releasing Japanese soldiers from custody, and using them to put down nationalist and Communist demonstrations in favor of Vietnamese independence. By 1946 the British had handed back control of the country to France, which proposed to retain the greater part of it as – along with North Africa – an actual constituent of the French Union.

We have highly suggestive anecdotal information that Franklin Roosevelt would not have approved what happened next, which was Harry Truman’s decision to support the restoration of French rule. He even allowed the diversion of Marshall Aid from France to its Indochinese theater, where French soldiers were facing an increasingly powerful opposition from Ho Chi Minh’s forces (who incidentally were the only indigenous fighters against both Vichy and Hirohito, at one stage helping to rescue downed American fliers who they regarded as allies). 

During the Eisenhower/ Nixon/ Dulles years it is agreed by most historians that the United States was paying up to 75 per cent of the cost of the French war. It was during this period that the covert forces of General Lansdale (the “Quiet” or “Ugly” American according to taste) were introduced to the country. Reluctant to commit any larger land forces of its own, the Eisenhower administration furnished many of the sinews of war to General Nivelle in the belief that he had laid a trap for General Giap at Dien Bien Phu, rather than the other way around. When the full extent of France’s humiliation became apparent, Richard Nixon and some of the Joint Chiefs actually proposed the use of “tactical” nuclear weapons before being over-ruled by the President himself. As a cover for France’s slow withdrawal, the United States made itself complicit in the unworkable and unjust partition of Vietnam at Geneva in 1954 (in which Vietnam’s historic enemy China helped in the carve-up) and was soon sharing the French role in picking and choosing Vietnamese client regimes, as well as in supplying their military wherewithal.

Perhaps the most prominent American politician to have opposed this policy (in so many words as a “French colonial” one) in the 1950s had been Senator John Kennedy. This makes it the more tragic or ironic, according to taste, that when he came to office he was made complicit in both the reign and the overthrow of the Diem family: the first truly non-French “pick” of a proxy regime but one not to be eclipsed in the annals of calamitous American statecraft until today’s Karzai dynasty in Kabul (if even by that). Worse still, having been bested by Kruschev in an early face-down over the critical question of Berlin, Kennedy seems to have decided that Indochina was an easier place in which to throw some weight around. There must have been some uproarious laughter in Hell, not to say Moscow, on that day.

I am sorry to have taken up more space than any of my critics but I hope I have helped show why some of us at the time regarded the Vietnam war as having been irretrievably “lost” in 1954. The origins of the American intervention in that country condemned the whole enterprise from the start, both historically and practically as well as morally. So once again I ask – are the foregoing factual statements mistaken? Are they irrelevant? Or do they come, as seems depressingly to be the case, as a near-complete surprise to the readers of Ricochet?

Sincerely,

Christopher Hitchens

There are 27 comments.

  1. Johnmark7 Inactive

    The origins of the American intervention in that country condemned the whole enterprise from the start, both historically and practically as well as morally.

    Origins, causes, genesis have many theses. Just ask – what started WW1?

    The enterprise wasn’t condemned from the start since America clearly won in Viet Nam, and defeated the North, while Congress threw away that victory.

    And to condemn it morally is a typical Hitchens folie et une. Hitchens loves to play his little tin god card of vast superiority and omniscience.

    A man without an ounce of humility or practical experience in any worthwhile human endeavor requiring actual effort and leadership somehow has his hand at the tiller of all history and knows how to safely plot every course through its shoals.

    You rarely hear Hitchens bemoan the evils of communism and tell us where Lenin went wrong, but you can’t count on him to blame America or the West first, always and every time.

    Ho Chi Minh was no better than a Nazi. If they were worth fighting, so was old Ho.

    • #1
    • December 10, 2010, at 2:29 AM PST
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  2. Peter Hintz Inactive

    American leaders felt it was in the interest of the United States to keep a communist, Soviet-controlled government out of Vietnam by all means. That’s why they supported the French regime in Vietnam. It’s not because they liked French colonial rule (they probably didn’t), but because they thought supporting France was the easiest way to keep out a greater adversary.

    • #2
    • December 10, 2010, at 2:36 AM PST
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  3. Profile Photo Member
    Johnmark7: T

    And to condemn it morally is a typical Hitchens folie et une. Hitchens loves to play his little tin god card of vast superiority and omniscience.

    Pardon me, but I have to take exception with that tone.

    Hitchens is a guest here, who took the time to share his views with the Ricochet community.

    And there has been no more forthright voice on the Left (if that’s where he considers himself to be) than Hitchens, when it comes to the war against Islamic fanaticism. If Hitchens had played to type after 9/11, he would be one of the many old Marxists making common cause with our foes.

    He deserves respect for that…and our best wishes for his health.

    • #3
    • December 10, 2010, at 2:50 AM PST
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  4. flownover Inactive

    Thank you Mr Hitchens for the history lesson.

    God bless.

    • #4
    • December 10, 2010, at 3:00 AM PST
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  5. oleneo65 Coolidge
    oleneo65 Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Hitchens is not asking for any quarter in this discussion, nor does he deserve any. Johnmark7’s comments were spot on.

    • #5
    • December 10, 2010, at 3:08 AM PST
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  6. Britanicus Member
    Britanicus Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member
    Kenneth

    Hitchens is a guest here, who took the time to share his views with the Ricochet community.

    And there has been no more forthright voice on the Left (if that’s where he considers himself to be) than Hitchens, when it comes to the war against Islamic fanaticism. If Hitchens had played to type after 9/11, he would be one of the many old Marxists making common cause with our foes.

    He deserves respect for that…and our best wishes for his health. · Dec 9 at 1:50pm

    I couldn’t agree more. It is a great honor and privilege that Mr. Hitchens has come to contribute to Ricochet. It would be wonderful if he would join the Podcast or become a regular contributor. Perhaps Ricochet isn’t exactly the “lion’s den”, so to say, but it certainly shows courage to post here. This at the very least deserves our respect.

    His opinions were very interesting and refreshing–as always–even though I didn’t agree with them all. I’m certainly not about to match wits with him, but I look forward to seeing how this thread plays out.

    Cheers!

    • #6
    • December 10, 2010, at 3:15 AM PST
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  7. Profile Photo Member
    Kenneth

    Johnmark7:

    Pardon me, but I have to take exception with that tone.

    Hitchens is a guest here, who took the time to share his views with the Ricochet community.

    And there has been no more forthright voice on the Left (if that’s where he considers himself to be) than Hitchens, when it comes to the war against Islamic fanaticism. If Hitchens had played to type after 9/11, he would be one of the many old Marxists making common cause with our foes.

    He deserves respect for that…and our best wishes for his health. · Dec 9 at 1:50pm

    Yes. Hitchens was one of few figures on the American Left who chose to condemn Islamic fascism after 9/11 instead of indicting the U.S. He hasn’t succumbed to the siren call of cultural relativism, so he gets my respect.

    • #7
    • December 10, 2010, at 3:39 AM PST
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  8. Profile Photo Member

    The issue here is purpose: Was the purpose of the Vietnam campaign

    1.) the containment of the spread of socialism/communism or

    2.) the restoration of French imperialist dominance

    I found this on Wikipedia, but it seems credible. According to Wikipedia’s First Indochina War page,

    “In May 1950, after the capture of Hainan island by Chinese Communist forces, U.S. President Harry S. Truman began covertly authorizing direct financial assistance to the French, and on June 27, 1950, after the outbreak of the Korean War, announced publicly that the U.S. was doing so. It was feared in Washington that if Ho were to win the war, with his ties to the Soviet Union, he would establish a puppet state with Moscow with the Soviets ultimately controlling Vietnamese affairs. The prospect of a communist dominated Southeast Asia was enough to spur the U.S. to support France, so that the spread of Soviet-allied communism could be contained.”

    I argue that Truman’s objective to contain the spread of socialism/communism encouraged him to assist the French. By attempting to repel Ho’s communist forces, Truman simultaneously buttressed the French imperialists. But his primary motivation was anti-communism.

    • #8
    • December 10, 2010, at 3:48 AM PST
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  9. Ken Sweeney Inactive

    Hitch’s main conclusion was stated “Is it really controversial, anywhere, to assert that United States support for French colonialism was at the root of the disaster?”

    I offer to controvert his assertions. He posits a laundry list of the US’s financial support, military actions and political initiatives that in no way link logically towards reinstating French colonial rule of Vietnam. His argument is that since the US did ANYTHING, it was tacit support of colonialism. Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky made careers pursuing similar lines of illogic.

    I am reminded of Bill Buckley’s quote “When confronted with the assertion that the Soviet Union and the United States were moral equivalents, if one man pushes an old lady into an oncoming bus and another man pushes an old lady out of the way of a bus, we should not denounce them both as men who push old ladies around.”

    Now one can, for a moment, recognize that the “root” of US support began during the time of French colonial rule. And the “root” of Yankees winning 27 World Series was a result of having Babe Ruth (even though he was only with 4 of them).

    • #9
    • December 10, 2010, at 3:51 AM PST
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  10. Profile Photo Member

    So it seems the U.S. government attempted to contain the communists and attempted to reinforce French imperialism. But it seems to me that the ultimate objective was the containment of the spread of socialism/communism. The U.S. government certainly was not focused exclusively on incurring the cost of subsidizing the French imperialists without obtaining from kind of benefit. Maintaining and supporting French imperialism was a means towards the containment of the spread of communism/socialism. There are undoubtedly multiple examples of U.S. governmental support for despotic regimes, but primarily as hedges against communist/socialist forces.

    • #10
    • December 10, 2010, at 3:54 AM PST
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  11. Chris Bogdan Inactive

    As always, Mr Hitchens displays a tremendous grasp of the topic but, in the end, I’m not entirely clear on how he gets there from here. One could make an argument the American war in Vietnam may have become inevitable in 1954 but I don’t think it necessarily follows that it was militarily doomed at that time. I’m not at all persuaded that it was morally doomed given that the South Vietnamese by and large resisted “reunification” and a great number escaped (or attempted to) after the fall. Preventing the enslavement of millions would seem an obivous exercise in morality, would it not?

    • #11
    • December 10, 2010, at 3:55 AM PST
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  12. Peter Robinson Founder
    Peter Robinson
    Michael Labeit: The issue here is purpose: Was the purpose of the Vietnam campaign

    1.) the containment of the spread of socialism/communism or

    2.) the restoration of French imperialist dominance

    I argue that Truman’s objective to contain the spread of socialism/communism encouraged him to assist the French. By attempting to repel Ho’s communist forces, Truman simultaneously buttressed the French imperialists. But his primary motivation was anti-communism. · Dec 9 at 2:48pm

    I argue the same, Michael. See my reply to Hitch. It’s the post I put up immediately after his, entitled “Background–and My Answer.”

    And thanks for getting this started.

    • #12
    • December 10, 2010, at 4:00 AM PST
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  13. Robert Bennett Inactive
    Peter Robinson

    Michael Labeit: The issue here is purpose: Was the purpose of the Vietnam campaign

    1.) the containment of the spread of socialism/communism or

    2.) the restoration of French imperialist dominance

    I argue that Truman’s objective to contain the spread of socialism/communism encouraged him to assist the French. By attempting to repel Ho’s communist forces, Truman simultaneously buttressed the French imperialists. But his primary motivation was anti-communism. · Dec 9 at 2:48pm

    I argue the same, Michael. See my reply to Hitch. It’s the post I put up immediately after his, entitled “Background–and My Answer.”

    And thanks for getting this started. · Dec 9 at 3:00p

    Same here too. In the post Christopher read I posted a link to the Buckley-Hitchens episode of Uncommon Knowledge and Bill Buckley made the same argument. Why was it not Containment?

    • #13
    • December 10, 2010, at 4:08 AM PST
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  14. Profile Photo Member
    Peter Robinson

    Michael Labeit: The issue here is purpose: Was the purpose of the Vietnam campaign

    1.) the containment of the spread of socialism/communism or

    2.) the restoration of French imperialist dominance

    I argue that Truman’s objective to contain the spread of socialism/communism encouraged him to assist the French. By attempting to repel Ho’s communist forces, Truman simultaneously buttressed the French imperialists. But his primary motivation was anti-communism. · Dec 9 at 2:48pm

    I argue the same, Michael. See my reply to Hitch. It’s the post I put up immediately after his, entitled “Background–and My Answer.”

    And thanks for getting this started. · Dec 9 at 3:00pm

    Yes, I see. And my pleasure.

    • #14
    • December 10, 2010, at 4:30 AM PST
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  15. Publius Inactive
    Peter Robinson: As a cover for France’s slow withdrawal, the United States made itself complicit in the unworkable and unjust partition of Vietnam at Geneva in 1954 (in which Vietnam’s historic enemy China helped in the carve-up) and was soon sharing the French role in picking and choosing Vietnamese client regimes, as well as in supplying their military wherewithal.

    Thanks for writing this, Christopher, and thanks for posting it, Peter.

    Is this quoted paragraph the core of the “It was lost in 1954” argument? Is the argument that no amount of military success on the part of the United States was going to salvage the situation in Viet Nam because of the partitioning created a natural tension to reunite and the resulting south Vietnamese governments were going to be hopelessly corrupt and ineffectual because of the mess France made of the place?

    It sounds reasonable enough, but then I start to wonder what lessons can be learned from the Korean experience. We were able to save half the country in the end from descending into a Stalinist murder state. However, we didn’t have the French mucking it up first and potentially making that unsalvageable.

    Interesting.

    • #15
    • December 10, 2010, at 5:00 AM PST
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  16. Squishy Blue RINO Inactive
    flownover: Thank you Mr Hitchens for the history lesson.

    God bless. · Dec 9 at 2:00pm

    Agreed, every word.

    I have to admit that my knowledge of the history of the Vietnam War is very poor.

    I received a public school education in California from the late 60’s to late 70’s, then attended college in the early 80’s. The war was not history then.

    As is often the case, American pop culture filled that void. I suspect I am not alone when I admit that most of my understanding of the Vietnam War, and more to the point, how it all started, I derived from Hollywood movies. I know the French were involved because I watched the Director’s Cut of Apocalypse Now.

    Which is to say I know very little at all.

    I have childhood memories of the war. It was an immanent, deadly menance. I remember my grandmother worried sick over my uncle, forced to fight in a jungle far away. Growing up in its aftermath was a like living in a house after a long and bitter divorce. When it was over I learned to tread lightly around the shattered men who returned.

    • #16
    • December 10, 2010, at 5:51 AM PST
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  17. Misthiocracy grudgingly Member
    Misthiocracy grudgingly Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    The only point of Mr. Hitchen’s essay which I need further clarification on is this:

    If China was a historical enemy of Vietnam, I assume he means that China was involved with the partition of Vietnam as a divide-and-conquer tactic.

    So, the implication would seem to be that if Vietnam had not been partitioned and Ho Chi Minh had been allowed to lead a unified Vietnam from the start, that there would be no need to fear a “domino effect”. After all, if Vietnam and China were historical enemies then Ho Chi Minh would have resisted Chinese pressure and aggression as much as he resisted the French and the Americans.

    Assuming that I’m interpreting his analysis correctly, I find the idea confusing, since Ho Chi Minh didn’t appear to resist Chinese pressure after partition. Indeed, North Vietnam received plenty of aid from China and Ho Chi Minh trained in China and advised China’s armed forces.

    So why should I believe that a non-partitioned Vietnam under Ho Chi Minh wouldn’t have been a part of Communist China’s sphere of influence (assuming that is indeed Mr. Hitchen’s opinion)?

    • #17
    • December 10, 2010, at 6:18 AM PST
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  18. Dave Carter Contributor

    I have enormous respect for Mr. Hitchens, and appreciate his candor and civility in posing the question to us. Mr. Hitchens, I respectfully answer your question by asking you another one: Applying your reasoning, would I be entitled to conclude that the root of our alliance with Stalin in WWII was to facilitate the development of a Soviet hegemony, which in turn rendered our involvement in that war immoral as well? Or could it be that we joined our efforts with the Soviets in order to defeat a common foe? I suspect that Peter and Michael are correct, that we were no more motivated to preserve colonialism than we were to preserve communism. Rather, we were committed to defeating the spread of totalitarianism whether it sported a swastika in one decade or a red star in another, and that we were willing, as JFK said, to help any friend and oppose any foe to do so.

    • #18
    • December 10, 2010, at 6:22 AM PST
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  19. Profile Photo Member
    Dave Carter: I have enormous respect for Mr. Hitchens, and appreciate his candor and civility in posing the question to us. Mr. Hitchens, I respectfully answer your question by asking you another one: Applying your reasoning, would I be entitled to conclude that the root of our alliance with Stalin in WWII was to facilitate the development of a Soviet hegemony, which in turn rendered our involvement in that war immoral as well? Or could it be that we joined our efforts with the Soviets in order to defeat a common foe? I suspect that Peter and Michael are correct, that we were no more motivated to preserve colonialism than we were to preserve communism. Rather, we were committed to defeating the spread of totalitarianism whether it sported a swastika in one decade or a red star in another, and that we were willing, as JFK said, to help any friend and oppose any foe to do so. · Dec 9 at 5:22pm

    Your WW2 analogy is an apt one. By allying ourselves with the Soviets against the Nazis, we ended up (perhaps inadvertently) lending support to the Soviet regime.

    • #19
    • December 10, 2010, at 6:26 AM PST
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  20. Dave L Member
    Dave L Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member
    Michael Labeit:

    I found this on Wikipedia, but it seems credible. According to Wikipedia’s First Indochina War page,

    Michael you do not need Wikipedia as a source, the Truman library on line has the documents that support this. It is clear from these that military support began in South East Asia as part of a larger global strategy of containment of communism.

    What roll did the Soviets and the Chinese play in Vietnam? How did they see Vietnam. I have read reports that stated that the Vietnamese at Dien Bien Phu were Chinese, equipped, trained, fed, and led. That General Giap did not take a ” human excremental function,” (Is that acceptable Claire?) without a Chinese General’s OK.

    I have also read that at one point in the mid 1960’s that there were over 100,000 Chinese military in North Vietnam.

    I have also heard anecdotal stories from Forces guys with multiple tours in Vietnam of recovered remains of Chinese officers.

    If these are true would this not indicate that Vietnam was not an internal “Civil War,” but one part of the larger so called “Cold War?”

    • #20
    • December 10, 2010, at 7:26 AM PST
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  21. Dave Carter Contributor

    One more point, if I may: Mr. Hitchens asks if the facts he put on the table are relevant, to which I would say that it depends on the conclusions that you draw from those facts. I’ve noticed, for example, that when I have my 18 wheeler washed, great gully-washers of rain follow me around for days. If we concluded that my truck washing caused a rain storm that would have made Cecil B. DeMille proud, then my truck washing schedule would be very relevant to anyone in my general proximity. The data that Hitchens presents is objectively relevant in a historical sense. Beyond that, the relevance depends on the conclusion, though he seems to suggest that if we agree that the data is relevant, then our agreement must lead inexorably to his conclusion. I respectfully disagree. By the way, I’m in Tyler, TX tonight and I’m thinking of washing my truck tomorrow in case anyone wants to be spared the hassle of watering the lawn.

    • #21
    • December 10, 2010, at 8:00 AM PST
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  22. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Dave, you live somewhere around I-10, right? If your route has you passing down I-45 near Houston on your way back, I’d love to meet up for a bit. I’m guessing you can get my email from the site admin.

    • #22
    • December 10, 2010, at 8:15 AM PST
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  23. Misthiocracy grudgingly Member
    Misthiocracy grudgingly Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member
    Dave Carter: I’ve noticed, for example, that when I have my 18 wheeler washed, great gully-washers of rain follow me around for days. If we concluded that my truck washing caused a rain storm that would have made Cecil B. DeMille proud, then my truck washing schedule would be very relevant to anyone in my general proximity.

    OMG! Dave Carter is a Rain God! Life imitates art.

    • #23
    • December 10, 2010, at 8:24 AM PST
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  24. Dave Carter Contributor

    Aaron, I will definitely do that. I’ve no idea which way I’ll be going tomorrow, but if time and location permit, I’d be delighted.

    • #24
    • December 10, 2010, at 8:32 AM PST
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  25. Duane Oyen Member

    Ho actually played the Russinas off against the Chinese. Mao was reluctant to get involved because, among other things, his plate was full at that time of the early PRC; and there is a long (1,000 year) history of enmity between the two countries. When the Russians stepped in with a big aid package, Mao had to match it, but more with labor and road construction than rivaling the Russian guns.

    It is pretty hard to read many of the Vietnamese archival documents, though (as Moyar details exhaustively in his first book- Triumph Forsaken– that ends in 1965 or so) and convince yourself that Ho’s only objective was reunification.

    This was ideological all the way, andonly one reading it throught he same ideological shade of lenses could convince himself that it was pure nationalism driving Ho and Giap. For one thing, you need to wilfully ignore all of the adventures in Laos, Cambodia, and even Thailand- only a small portion of which were related to the Cambodian supply road to the South.

    I do appreciate, however, that Hitch seriously does more homework than most- on either side- do.

    • #25
    • December 10, 2010, at 9:13 AM PST
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  26. Ronald Raygun Inactive

    Thanks for taking time to post, Hitch, and here’s to your health.

    • #26
    • December 12, 2010, at 9:27 AM PST
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  27. Profile Photo Member

    I have loved and hated Hitchen’s contributions. This one I love for it’s sheer detail and mastery. The world will miss his fiery bombast and mental power. I haven’t a fraction of his knowledge of this matter but I concede that in a practical sense the U.S. did indeed “support” (materially) the French objective of maintaining colonial power — which is not the same as supporting (in principle) French colonialism in Indochina. I should think that it must have occurred to Hitchen’s formidable mind that the U.S. motive was not to see the French maintain power there but to build a buffer against the encroachment of Soviet power in that part of the world. The French, and their colonial ambitions, were means to that end. I doubt the U.S. had any interest in French ambitions in Asia but backed the colonial effort as a lesser evil.

    On a related note, I knew a boat person quite well, in the 80s. He once sang a beautiful Vietnamese patriotic song, which was in French. There were tears in his eyes. He said “If someone sings this song in Vietnam today, it will cost them their life.”

    • #27
    • December 19, 2011, at 12:34 PM PST
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