Saturday, March 2, 2013
Congressman Don Fraser Remembers Vietnam
"SORT OF LIKE A GREEK TRAGEDY"
I volunteered for the trip to Vietnam [ Fraser was part of a Congressional delegation that visited Vietnam from February 25 until March 3, 1975]. I had not been there before. I was elected to Congress in November, 1962. I was one of the early doves, one of the people critical on America's role in Vietnam, probably from the summer of 1965. I was always a critic of the war.
When I went there I asked to see some rural development projects. Ordinarily on trips like that, made in the midst of a contentious debate, I find it difficult to learn things that are likely to be useful, partly because the people in charge of your trip tend to be supporters of policy and tend to show you things that will justify what they are doing. That was one reason I wanted to go to rural development projects. That would take me out of the mainstream.
One of the first places we went to visit, which was supposed to be under control of the government, appeared not to be. I remember how carefully the pilot circled repeatedly, then when they got out they went out with their guns at the ready. Now you know that is kind of symbolic if nothing else.
I got to see rural development projects, and that was interesting but it only obliquely dealt with larger policy questions. One of the questions in my mind was, "If the US continues its involvement here, what would the outcome likely be and when?" The second question which you could not really answer by going there was, "What is the interest of the United States here? What is it exactly was it we were trying to do? Why is it important for the United States to attempt to support the regime in Saigon?" You did not get answers to those questions necessarily by going there.
I found at the time that there were genuine democrats there, people who really believed in democratic government, who were supportive of our continued presence there.
So my position, I don't know how it was expressed, was not to cut off supplies to Vietnam. While I did not see that this as a war that the US should fight, I did not just see the solution was pulling the plug on the Saigon regime.
It was not the responsibility of the US to preserve the territorial integrity of the South Vietnam, however. That presupposes that there was a country called South Vietnam that was more than an artificial construct. When the French were fighting there it was one country. And it was really we who were the ones who who created with our pressure and our interest this country called South Vietnam and proceded to put President Ngo Dinh Diem in there. And so it was our manipulation that created what could be called the fiction of a country. It was really a divided country which was divided politically because we intervened to try to prevent the consequences of the settlement that the French reached.
The question was "Why is that of interest to the US." I remember Dean Rusk testifying that if we weren't over in Vietnam the hordes of millions of Chinese would pour South and ultimately they'd conquer everything. But here is a grown adult man whom I have a lot of respect for, and I think he's very bright, who had engaged in a form of self deception. That just wasn't going to happen And not every fight in every part of the world is an American fight.
If you assume that it was to our interest, that there was an important American interest at stake in supporting Saigon or its territorial claims, if you assume that, then all of these questions that these folks are asking become relevant.
I think where I came out, I had difficulty understanding why it was an important interest to us. All over the world there are people who don't like their governments. I don't think its important to argue that the Vietnamese in the South didn't want a communist government.
I guess, part of the problem, I can't remember exactly what I felt at that point in 1975, but my general point of view of that kind of conflict has been that there is no political settlement that will likely last, and that won't lead to the North taking over. What you had was a highly ideological movement in the North fighting a nonideological existence in the South. In those circumstances it is pretty clear who is going to win. Unless you put American troops in. I just didn't see how they could win. I wasn't prepared to pull the plug on Saigon, because we had sort of put them where they were. But on the other hand I didn't see that this was an important objective for the US to commit its forces, its own forces to. I think I saw it at the time as sort of like a Greek Tragedy. An inevitable tragedy.
People said that we should not give up Cam Ranh Bay to the communists. You know what that reminds me of. People who say that we have to support South Africa because they control the Cape, the passage around southern Africa.
Well, the Russians now have Cam Ranh Bay, what difference has it made in your life or mine or in anybody's? So what? If we are going to war with the Soviets, is Cam Ranh Bay likely to be a factor? It would be one part in a million in any conflict.
The long term lesson of it all is that when the French pulled out as a colonial power, when they left Indochina, we should have left it at that and let events take their normal course. The transition probably would have been less bloody. The US is not able to manage all of these problems, and often we intensify the disastrous outcomes. The Vietnamese pushed the French out, and it seems to me we should have let it go at that. When you look around at what happened in the world, the argument for our involvement in Vietnam had to do with China, it was part of our containment policy. We imposed our perspective on the world to the detriment of thousands of Vietnamese. I am not saying that's how they would ultimately come out then, I can't say, but when you look at our relations with China today, how we are courting them and seem to be oblivious to their human rights problems -- the only bad human rights problems seem to be in the Soviet Union -- I just have trouble understanding how we could have thought about those things then. The Chinese and the Soviets as far as I am concerned have the essentially the same system. Both systems are very bad and basic human rights for people are denied. But in terms of US strategic interests, or so called security interests, the code word for "lets do what we want," it seems to me that we are making common cause with the Chinese.
[In 1954, Fraser was elected to the Minnesota Senate and served for eight years ending in 1962 when he was elected to the United States House of Representatives from Minnesota's Fifth District. He served there in the 88th, 89th, 90th, 91st, 92nd, 93rd, 94th, and 95th congresses, from January 3, 1963 until January 3, 1979, giving up his seat to run for the U.S. Senate. He narrowly lost the 1978 Senate primary election to Bob Short, who then lost in the general election to David Durenberger.]