Author Archives: John Robson

It happened today – April 30, 2016

A sign near a Hanoi street in 2009, depicting the moment when an NVA tank crashed into the Presidential Palace 34 years earlier, on April 30, 1975. (Wikipedia)

April 30 was a busy day in history, like most days. Washington first took the oath of office as U.S. President on this day in 1789, which is good. Jefferson made the Louisiana purchase exactly 14 years later, which is also good. Saigon fell to the Communists in 1975, which is bad. But you can’t wear a black armband because Hitler died on April 30 1945 and you wouldn’t want anyone thinking it was about that.

I do still very much regret the fall of Saigon. I realize by April 1975 it was a question of when not whether. The Vietnam War had gone badly for all kinds of reasons from poor tactics to stupid political decisions to the temper of the times. But the fall of the Republic of Vietnam to Communism was a tragedy, for the Vietnamese and for the world, and we should remember it.

In contemplating the final days, when nothing could be done, I feel some pity for the people stuck surrendering.

Even at the end of World War I, when those responsible for Germany starting the war and losing it scurried away and left some other chump holding the pen. Specifically Gustav Bauer, a Social Democrat who became Chancellor in June 1919 because his boss wouldn’t sign the Treaty of Versailles, and Bauer got the job because somebody had to, Germany having been beaten and all. Even post-war foreign minister Ulrich von Brockdorff-Rantzau, who actually led the delegation to Versailles, resigned rather than sign because it was harsh. It strikes me as irresponsible.

Then there’s president Dương Văn Minh unconditionally surrendering the Republic of Vietnam on April 30 1975. What choice did he have? Did people want blood to run in the streets of Saigon and have it end inevitably in defeat anyway?

Dương doesn’t seem to have been that great a guy; an apparently capable officer who rose to the rank of general (as did his brother on the other side), he actually seized power in the November 2, 1963 coup against Ngô Đình Diệm and may well have ordered his murder. But then he proved a useless lazy president and was himself ousted just three months later, though he was kept on as a figurehead for a while before losing a power struggle and being exiled.

He came back quietly in 1972 and somehow got fingered to serve as president for two entire days and take the heat for surrendering instead of leading a pointless fight to the bitter end. He wasn’t imprisoned, but instead lived quietly until being allowed to leave for to France in 1983 and later to California where he died in 2001, aged 85, having had many years to reflect on what he had done and what had come of it.

So have the rest of us. We haven’t done that much reflecting, though, because the Vietnam War was so unpopular and its aftermath so horrifying that nobody much wanted to think about it. Obviously things were far worse in Cambodia than in Vietnam; the Khmer Rouge are on a per capita basis the most ghastly genocidal monsters in human history. But Communism was bad in Vietnam and it was aggressive.

Not so much the Vietnamese Communists themselves, who were too busy repressing their own people and wrecking their economy. But their Soviet masters, who took the victory in Vietnam and the apparent loss of American self-confidence as proof that the final crisis of capitalism had finally staggered onto the stage of world history and went on a geopolitical rampage.

It was and is fashionable to ridicule the “domino theory” and to ignore JFK’s September 1963 statement that “I believe it. I believe it.” But if I may quote Richard Nixon, and I may since I’m the one writing this piece, I’m almost sure I owe to him the observation (I cannot now find the actual quotation in my notes) that between the adoption of the doctrine of containment and 1974, only two nations became communist. From 1974 through 1980, at least a dozen did, including South Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Angola, Mozambique, South Yemen, Guyana, Guinea-Bissau, Nicaragua, Ethiopia, Surinam and Grenada. All were considerably worse off from it, though not all experienced the bloodshed of, say, Guinea-Bissau, and nowhere else were Cambodia’s horrors repeated.

Marxism was wrong, as an economic theory and as a theory of human nature. And the Vietnamese paid a heavy price, in freedom denied including a policy of limiting family size, and in economic stagnation. Hundreds of thousands fled in leaky boats; some found a better life including in Canada. Others found a watery grave.

Nowadays the Vietnamese government is getting along fairly well with the United States, given the grave and justified apprehensions of both about China’s rising power and growing ambitions. And it has taken halting steps toward freeing up the economy.

I applaud this rapprochement between Hanoi and Washington on geopolitical grounds. I’m also glad the regime is staggering away from central planning toward something resembling markets. And I realize there will never be a reckoning for what happened during the war, by which I mean the Communist atrocities and assassinations because the United States, as an open society, investigated itself even while the war was continuing. Nor will there be a reckoning for decades of misgovernment since.

Nor I suppose is there much practical point. We do pursue war criminals to the very edge of the grave, and rightly so, seeking to convict and punish Nazis into their 90s. And for the organizers and key perpetrators of communist and other atrocities the same treatment would be thoroughly appropriate. But most even of those are dead now in Vietnam; Ho Chi Minh himself, for whom Saigon was grimly renamed in 1976, died in 1969. And a lot of the rest were simply mistaken in their comparative youth and unable to get off the tiger they were riding for years afterward. Ditto those opponents of the war in the free societies who did not later repent, as some commendably did.

William Shawcross, for instance, who wrote the highly critical, even inflammatory 1979 book Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon, and the Destruction of Cambodia, later wrote in the London Times: “Those of us who opposed the American war in Indochina should be extremely humble in the face of the appalling aftermath: a form of genocide in Cambodia… Looking back on my own coverage, I think I concentrated too easily on the corruption and incompetence of the South Vietnamese and their American allies [and] was too ignorant of the inhuman Hanoi regime…” And he took a well-deserved shot at those who claimed the bloodbath was “CIA propaganda.”

As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn put it in a blistering speech to Harvard Commencement in 1978, apparently unanticipated by his audience or those who invited him, “the most cruel mistake occurred with the failure to understand the Vietnam war. Some people sincerely wanted all wars to stop just as soon as possible; others believed that there should be room for national, or communist, self-determination in Vietnam, or in Cambodia, as we see today with particular clarity. But members of the U.S. anti-war movement wound up being involved in the betrayal of Far Eastern nations, in a genocide and in the suffering today imposed on 30 million people there. Do those convinced pacifists hear the moans coming from there? Do they understand their responsibility today? Or do they prefer not to hear?”

I have no desire to rake up old quarrels or inflame old sores. But I do think it’s important to recognize, in contemplating the fall of Saigon that to many in the West brought selfish relief that they could wash their hands of the whole business and purge it from their minds, that the domino theory was true, and that Communism was a very bad thing.

If the Vietnamese are now emerging from the shadow of those events I am glad. I would do nothing to prevent it. I seek no vengeance. But I do seek truth, and I do pine for a kind of justice, here as elsewhere, that I understand, here as elsewhere, is not to be found on this side of the grave.

Perhaps on the other side there will be some kind of reckoning, somehow merciful as well as just. For now we can at least remember and learn.

Inasmuch as it marks the fall of Saigon in 1975, April 30 is a very sad day.


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It happened today – April 29, 2016

Generally I try not to be rude to Joan of Arc. I know the French like her a lot. But April 29 was the beginning of the end for her, back in 1429, and I consider it very revealing.

As you presumably know, she had visions. Two saints and an Archangel (Margaret, Catherine and Michael respectively) told her to support Charles VII and kick the English out of France. Which was clearly silly, so the as-yet-uncrowned Charles sent her to relieve the siege of Orleans. See ya later, you strange woman.

Except it worked. She arrived there on April 29 and the siege was lifted after only nine days. There is the usual historical rhubarb about exactly what role she played, but clearly she gave advice to French commanders up to the very highest level, including Jean d’Orléans, cousin of Charles VII, and the Duc d’Alençon who commanded French forces at the siege. The French won a series of quick victories soon afterward, and Charles was duly crowned at Reims. Then everybody got all gung ho and the English got the boot except from Calais.

So far so good, you may say. And so do I, even for the English, whose kings’ obsession with France was not merely expensive in lives and treasure but potentially hazardous to the constitution of liberty (see especially the April 9 entry in this series). But here’s the problem for Joan or, to avoid being an insular English ignare, Jeanne. She didn’t know when to stop.

Joan said she received visions of the Archangel Michael, Saint Margaret, and Saint Catherine instructing her to support Charles VII and recover France from English domination late in the Hundred Years’ War. The uncrowned King Charles VII sent Joan to the siege of Orléans as part of a relief mission. She gained prominence after the siege was lifted only nine days later. Several additional swift victories led to Charles VII’s coronation at Reims. This long-awaited event boosted French morale and paved the way for the final French victory.

Well, mission accomplished. See ya later, you um inspired if disquieting woman-messenger-of-God person. But she wouldn’t go away. She started editing her vision.

In a way you can see why. To go back to life as a humble peasant, however successful and happy that life might be in terms of family and farm, and even after you and yours were ennobled by the King of France which they were, would be a letdown.

On the other hand, if the appetite grows with the eating you may eventually bite off more than you can chew and become an unwelcome dinner companion. Jeanne did so, thundering against Hussite heretics and itching for war to resume so she could get back into action. It did and she did, but was captured by Burgundian allies of the English, handed over to them, tried for heresy, cross-dressing and being successfully annoying and burnt at the stake.

The trial was profoundly unfair and was quickly reversed by the Catholic Church, in 1456. The biggest problem, though not the only one, was that the charge of “cross-dressing” was important because heresy was only a capital crime for repeat offenders, and Jeanne had disguised herself as a man to move about during the war and later in prison had put on male clothing tightly tied to make it harder for her captors to rape her. Which is pretty clearly not the point of Deuteronomy 22:5 (“The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the Lord thy God.” – KJV). The guy who executed her later said he “greatly feared to be damned” and you can see why.

Still, Jeanne was on a kind of career arc that could only end badly. (Unless you count being cynically made a symbol of France by Napoleon in 1803 and sincerely canonized by the Roman Catholic Church in 1920.) I wouldn’t have voted to convict her. At least I hope I wouldn’t. But somebody was bound to, and they did.


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Hanging fire

My latest for The Rebel: April 28, over 500 years ago, in 1503, saw the first decisive victory due to small-calibre gunpowder weapons in the otherwise totally obscure battle of Cerignola. It was a long journey from that generally forgotten clash to the transformed tactics and “empty battlefields” of the Boer War and both World Wars, in which accurate rifles and lethal machine guns meant to be visible was to be dead. But that’s how technology always starts… very small.

The audio-only version is available here:

Rebel, April 28, 2016 - Download This Episode


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It happened today – April 28, 2016

The battle of Cerignola

There’s a wonderful image in Norman Stone’s counterfactual scenario where Archduke Franz Ferdinand is not assassinated. After the Austrians took Bosnia from the Turks in 1878 and made Sarajevo a showcase for central European civilization, fancy trains “would be saluted by a proud stationmaster in full-dress uniform” as though they were carriages. But that’s how technological change always starts. Very small.

Likewise, when printing first appeared people thought it was just very fast writing. They had no idea how it would contribute to the spread of literacy, of often heretical ideas, of scholarship (because people far apart could compare page and line references and ponder and correct corruptions in texts) and of bureaucracy. And then of course there’s the battle of Cerignola on April 28 1503.

Oh is there? you cry. And I do not respond by asking whether you can possibly be unaware of the victory of the Spanish under Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba and the French under the late Louis d’Armagnac, Duke of Nemours. Well of course they’re all dead now. But he became the late Duke of Nemours during the battle fought near Bari in Southern Italy that didn’t matter a hoot to anyone unless they were killed there.

Except for one thing.

Cerignola is the first battle decided by gunpowder small arms fire. The French forces were augmented by a contingent of formidable Swiss mercenary pikemen, among the most feared foot soldiers in Europe at the time. But their attack, along with French cavalry, was devastated by Spanish arquebusiers behind a ditch.

Larger gunpowder weapons had already played a pivotal role in shattering the feudal nobility, as cannons made the slow tedious business of besieging castles into a quick and lethal process. And in most of Europe, a nobility that had so dominated the king that it had no need to connect with the people found that when the new central state came for them, they had neither connections with nor sympathy from the peasants.

Even in England, control of the artillery by the first Tudor, Henry VII, perilously altered the balance of political power that had existed since at least the sealing of Magna Carta and led to two centuries of efforts to create absolutism. And the inability of the government to take small arms from the citizens was central to the failure of those efforts.

It’s a long, long way from Cerignola to the Somme. The arquebus was unbelievably slow, clumsy and inaccurate by our standards, a smooth-bore muzzle-loader you originally had to fire by putting a burning piece of wood or cord to the touch-hole though later it had a match-lock that held your burning thing for you and lowered it when you pulled the trigger. If it wasn’t wet. Or too windy. Or used up. Or the gunpowder was junk. Or your gun exploded and killed you. But you can’t keep ‘em on the farm once they’ve seen Paris and guns kept getting better even though humans didn’t.

Mass production, steam and then electric power, petrochemicals, all kinds of other things went into the lethal small firearms of the 20th century. And to be sure, even on the Somme artillery was a more deadly weapon than rifles or machine guns, in terms of the share of casualties. But the critical role of small-bore gunpowder weapons in reshaping battlefields first into the colourful squares of eighteenth and early nineteenth century wars and then the “empty battlefields” from the Boer War to Afghanistan, where to be seen was to be killed, had its seeds in a battle no one remembers in a war no one remembers. It always starts small.

Oh, by the way, at the end of that battle, dismayed by the sheer number of dead, the Spanish commander ordered the first “toque de oracion” or “call to prayer,” with three long tones played and then his own troops praying for their dead enemies. Looking ahead to the Somme, and understanding that few have ever died well who die in war, we might well still say “God help us” as gunpowder spreads.


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