Robert Scheer SI Podcast

Sherry Buchanan:The Women Warriors Who Stopped the American War in Vietnam

The author of “On the Ho Chi Minh Trail,” discusses what she learned about the Vietnam War from the Vietnamese women who survived its frontlines.
Sherry Buchanan, author of “On the Ho Chi Minh Trail,” discusses what she learned about the Vietnam War from the Vietnamese women who survived its frontlines.
[Photo courtesy of Sherry Buchanan]

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The Vietnam War–or, as it is more accurately called in Vietnam, the American War–has become an inextricable and tragic part of the fabric of both Vietnamese and American society. America’s Cold War intervention in the Asian country was as much an act of neocolonialism as it was a consequence of the country’s anti-communist scourge around the globe. Despite the War’s moral implications, the mass death it wrought, the long aftermath of chemical weapon use, and the decades of physical and psychological trauma it caused Vietnamese civilians and fighters as well as American soldiers, many argues the U.S. has yet to truly grapple with what the invasion says about the country’s seemingly insatiable penchant for violent supremacy. 

In “On the Ho Chi Minh Trail: The Blood Road, the Women Who Defended It, the Legacy,” journalist Sherry Buchanan adds another chapter to the conflict’s story by recording the War’s events from the perspective of the women who fought on its frontlines. The new book is described by publisher Asia Ink as, “part travelogue, part history, and part reflective meditation, [‘On the Ho Chi Minh Trail’] offers both a personal and historical exploration of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, highlighting the critical role the Trail and the young women soldiers who helped build and defend it played in the Vietnam War.” On this week’s installment of “Scheer Intelligence,” the former editor and columnist for the Wall Street Journal and the International Herald Tribune joins Robert Scheer to discuss the War as two journalists who reported extensively on the conflict during various periods. Throughout, Buchanan describes her various personal encounters in Vietnam over the past 50 years, shining a spotlight on the heroic women she’s met whose stories are too often left out of historical accounts. 

Troops of the South Vietnam Liberation Army marching towards the front along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Vietnam War. August 1967. [Photo by Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images]

After Scheer offers a summary of the oft forgotten colonial roots of the War and the reasons the U.S. ignominiously chose to invade Vietnam, he points to several ironies to the American approach to the Asian country then and now. Despite U.S. leaders’ justification of the War as a fight against communism in the 1960s, says the “Scheer Intelligence” host, today, as China’s capitalist triumphs seemingly threaten U.S. corporate interests, the Joe Biden administration is encouraging businesses such as Apple to move their production lines from China to Vietnam. 

Buchanan, who is also the author of “Tran Trung Tin: Paintings and Poems from Vietnam,” “Vietnam Zippos: American Soldiers’ Engravings & Stories,” “Mekong Diaries: Viet Cong Drawings and Stories,” and “Vietnam Posters,” has spent many years collecting revelatory art and artefacts from the War and examining its far-reaching legacy in its various forms. Although the two agree there has been a general American blindness toward the real impact of the War, Buchanan believes that in the past five years there has been a shift in the U.S.

Listen to the full discussion between Buchanan and Scheer as the two journalists offer accounts and viewpoints critical to the conversation all Americans urgently need to have about U.S. interventionism then and now.

Credits: 

Host:
Robert Scheer

Producer:
Joshua Scheer

Introduction:
Natasha Hakimi Zapata 

Transcript:
Lucy Berbeo 

RS: This is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case it’s a journalist, Sherry Buchanan, who worked for the Wall Street Journal and for the international edition of the Herald-Tribune, had a very interesting career. And then she got very involved with the whole issue of art and war and how it’s depicted, and a particular emphasis on what happened in Vietnam–America’s great tragic war, we say, but actually the great tragedy was of course visited upon the Indo-Chinese people. 

And the book is called On the Ho Chi Minh Trail: The Blood Road, The Women Who Defended It, The Legacy. And we know so little about the carnage we visit on others from their point of view. And I doubt if there are very many people who have heard of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which by the way is the name given for this route taking material and people down from North Vietnam to support people in South Vietnam, and to help overthrow the puppet government of South Vietnam that the U.S. had installed after the French were defeated.

And it was mostly an effort, a heroic military effort, under the most intense bombing maybe in human history. And you know, the statistic I think is more bombs were dropped on Vietnam than all of Europe in World War II, and a lot of them fell on this Ho Chi Minh Trail winding down from north to south through very difficult terrain. And that it was maintained and supported primarily by women; women who were under fire, women who were carrying the material, and so forth. And depicted, really captured best by artists, who drew pictures and so forth of this life that existed.

So I’m going to turn this over to you now, Sherry Buchanan. Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you came to be involved with this project. And the book, which is available now; you can get it on Amazon or independent bookstores, and it’s published by Asia Ink in London. And take it over.

SB: Thank you, Bob. I’m delighted to be with you. I first went to Vietnam in the nineties, and to my astonishment discovered these wonderful war drawings by official war artists who were, I guess you could say, embedded with the troops on the front lines. And depicting so many women, and at the time I wondered why that was; and I thought well, maybe they just were missing female company. But not at all. Although for us the war had been depicted as the macho war of all times, on the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong side there were many women soldiers and youth volunteers who were drafted to support the war effort. 

Once I realized that, I was intrigued and wanted to meet them, and I decided to travel down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which they had built and defended. And I discovered that far from being just women in the lesser, how would one say, recognized support roles, they were on the front lines; they were multitasking; they were doing incredibly dangerous work. And they were just amazing soldiers.

RS: And so you met the veterans of this. You went down the trail yourself, and you’ve recorded this in probably the definitive recording by, certainly by an American. And I should mention that you, I think you now live in London but you were educated at Smith College, where you were a student while the war was being fought. And then you also studied at the Fletcher School of Diplomacy. And I think you’ve written, what, done four books on art and war in Vietnam?

SB: I have, yes. I have, and this is the latest one.

RS: Yeah. And so I do want to cut to the chase here, which is really the importance of this book is if we don’t look at war that we visit upon people–and we did visit this; we created this–we don’t really get it. It would be like, you know, writing about the Holocaust from the point of view only of German soldiers, you know, and not the people that they killed, and the pogrom, and the Holocaust and everything. And this is really what is at issue here. 

And you kind of have a theme running through your book, just to set the historical stage, that this really didn’t have to happen, of course. There was no real Vietnamese threat to anybody’s security. And that in fact there had been French colonialism; you know, we have to bring up some history, because we Americans are not very interested in other people’s history. Or a country only exists when we go there, as a tourist or a conqueror or what have you, or to do business, and then we lose interest when we’re not there. 

But the fact is, in the post-World War II period there was this great anticolonial upsurge. And one of the more spectacular cases were the Vietnamese under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh, defeating French colonialism in 1954, the great Battle of Dien Bien Phu. Then there were supposed to be elections to unify the country; the French had retreated to the southern part, and Ho Chi Minh was up north. In 1956 there were supposed to be elections, and President Eisenhower conceded in his book Mandate for Change that he was told that, you know, 80% of the people would have voted for Ho Chi Minh. 

And we intervened; we found a guy named Ngo Dinh Diem, who was studying in a Catholic retreat in the northeastern United States. And we announced that he was the George Washington of this country, and we neglected the fact that only 10% of the country were Catholic, that it was the residue of French colonialism, that there had been this revolt against the French, and these other folks had led it. And we intervened and prevented the election. And then four years later, fighting developed in the south, and then we expanded the war to the north by 1965.

And then this Ho Chi Minh Trail–again, that was the name given really by the U.S. media and so forth–came in to force. It had started in ’59, but by ’65 when we were bombing North Vietnam, it became a major supply line to their effort in the south to overthrow, basically, this puppet government. So you may not agree with that historical brief description, but I just want to set the stage.

SB: I pretty well agree with what you just said, just made my life a lot simpler. Yes, usually I have to defend this, but it’s a pretty good summary.

RS: OK. So then tell us about this. Because, you know, just from a point of view of an important story, or what movies should be made about and so forth, it is a story of incredible heroism. A fight for people for their independence, whatever you think about whether they should, you know, how important that is. But people fight for independence; that’s how the United States got created, and we had our own contradictions and so forth, but nonetheless it’s conceded that people have a right to do this. 

And in fact, Ho Chi Minh began his pronouncement of a new state by quoting from the U.S. Declaration of Independence, right? And he actually had the naive view, actually going back to World War I and the Versailles Treaty, that the U.S. would actually back independence against French colonialism. He had been in the United States, he’d been in France, and he actually believed–I think genuinely, other people think maybe he was just using the language of the Declaration–but he actually believed that the United States, you know, could support this. 

I should say, by the way, I was in Vietnam in ’64 and ’65, and later in the nineties and so forth. Spent some time; I interviewed Pham Van Dong, the prime minister; others, including one of our pilots, [Pete] Peterson, who became the first ambassador. So I have some familiarity. And my own view is, this didn’t have to happen. And I think that’s a subtext of your book: it’s a story of great heroism and fighting and revolution and so forth, but you know, in the words of–in World War II they used to say, “Is this trip necessary?” because you shouldn’t be traveling and wasting resources. And here was, you know, what, maybe three and a half, four million people died as a result, mostly civilians. And a war that really, now, makes no sense. 

Let me just put a footnote on that. Right now we’re in a situation where the U.S. government, whether it’s the Trump administration or Biden, actually likes the communist government of Vietnam in preference to the communist government of China. And we’re trying to urge people like Apple to go produce their products in Vietnam instead of China. But this whole image of the battle against communism has turned out to be an enormous illogical error. 

SB: Yeah, I think you’re right. And it is a tragic error, because you know, some of my Vietnamese friends said, well, maybe we would have had a civil war, since there were communists on one side, and what I would call authoritarian right on the other side. Catholics and Buddhists, and there were definitely fault lines within the Vietnamese elites and population. So there might have been a civil war, but it would have been a lot more contained, a lot smaller, and the loss of life would have been maybe in the hundreds of thousands or tens of thousands. A lot lower than what happened. So, yes, very tragic episode for the Vietnamese.

RS: So bring us to this book. Because it’s a compelling story of sacrifice, often voluntary but sometimes, you know, you have nationalism, you have patriotism on both sides, and people are involved, and then sometimes they regret it later. It’s a really important human story. You point out in your book, we have very little in the way of–I think Oliver Stone made the only movie, Heaven and Earth, talking about the war from the point of view of a woman. But most of it was really about America’s side of it, and the people pulverized by bombing the others. And I’ve talked too much already, so please, tell us about the book and what’s compelling about your story.

SB: Well, to me the most compelling are the women who did play a major role, not just a support role, and who enlisted or were drafted, but who believed in defending their family and land. And I think by illuminating their role, you can see that it’s, as you say, it was just natural human inclination to defend your land against an invader or an occupier. And one of the American Vietnam veterans put it this way: If I was on my farm and the Chinese invaded the United States, I would have a hard time believing they were coming to help. And I think–I would hope that the book sort of illustrates this. And I’m sure that Americans who understand, and can recognize the scale of devastation and the huge human loss that came from this, would want to do something–would want to finally do [something to] compensate, or recognize what they did. And that they have a responsibility towards doing something to make things right. 

And I do think that they just never really looked at the scale of the devastation that was inflicted on Vietnam, and at the number of lives that were lost. I think the focus of the debate has been on how terrible the Vietnam War was for the United States, and how it polarized our own society. And I think I understand that. I think wars take time; looking at the enemy’s side takes time. But I think 55 years later the time is now, and it’s time for us to look at this again, and say well, what can we do to put this right? 

RS: You know, you quote someone, one of the people that you did the trip with–you did it with a number of very interesting Vietnamese artists and others–who says: Americans know the suffering, but they can’t feel the suffering. And when I–because I’ve been in a number of these war zones, writing about them, and places of tension. And it always boils down to that: Is the other made up of real people? Do they have real pain? This goes on whether you’re talking about an intervention in Iraq, or in Central America, or what have you. Americans know the suffering; they’re not idiots, they know if you drop more bombs on a little country like Vietnam than you did on all of Europe, there’s going to be a lot of suffering. But do they feel the suffering? Are these really human beings that you care about? That’s the question your book–

SB: I think it is the question, and I think what I wanted to portray, as Le Ly Hayslip herself said, is that finally somebody described us as human. Because remember that our own war propaganda described the Vietnamese on the other side as non-humans. And it kind of–it kind of pervades the whole way of looking at wars. And it’s time to just listen to the other side and learn from that and move forward. Because it’s like–yourself, as a human, when you reach a certain level of maturity, you say OK, let’s look back; what did I do wrong, what were my mistakes? And why do you do that? Not to have regrets, not to beat yourself up; because you say, I want to move forward. I want to do something better as I go forward. 

And I think the United States might be at this juncture now, and should look in terms of its post-war, World War II policy in the world, and say, hmm, maybe not. Maybe this was not the right way to go. I mean, when you look at the numbers that we have killed, in civilians in our wars, it’s pretty grim reading. And unfortunately we have a band-aid and we call it “collateral damage,” or we justify it–like with Hiroshima, that you know, we ended the war. But I don’t think we can continue to do that. And I think the U.S. is strong enough and–strong enough to look at itself, and make some changes for the better. So I’m an optimistic person on that front.

RS: You have someone you quote, again one of the Vietnamese that you traveled with and so forth, who said–and this includes the French as well, and actually includes the Chinese. After all, everybody forgets the Chinese occupied Indochina for a thousand years, the French for 100 years, and the U.S. occupation was shorter, more devastating. But this person you quote says: Foreigners don’t care about Vietnamese culture; they assume we have nothing; all they care or are interested in is war and politics. And it was an artist telling you this. And it’s interesting, because when you read your book, we are introduced to thousands of years of history. And you do it in a compelling way through the arts. 

I really want to promote this book, because it’s a challenge to a notion of American innocence and exceptionalism. And it raises the question: Do we really care? And I want to give one example I’d like you to talk about. You know, the book is really about the role of women. And you point out historically, in the opposition to the foreigner, there’s this rich history that way precedes communism or the Cold War or anything. And there’s one figure that I found really fascinating, and as I say, the Chinese occupation began in, according to you, 111 B.C., went on to 939 A.D. But this lady–and I’m probably mispronouncing her name–Trinh–

SB: Trinh, yes.

RS: And you go to the temple, to her. So tell us about Lady Trinh, the feminist, who by the way one quote you have that’s attributed to her, she said she would never, “I will never bend my back to be anyone’s concubine.” When was that said, or supposedly said, by Lady Trinh?

SB: That was said in the, is it the fourth or third century. And I did go to some lengths to try to verify that, because obviously her story–which is a legend, or was passed down through oral history only. So I traced it back to a chronicle of the 19th century, written by a governor of Thanh Hoa, the province where she was. And I think if he’d made it up–I mean, I don’t think he could have made it up, because at the time Vietnam was a very patriarchal society, and men could have a few wives and concubines, and all that was fine. So to make up a feminist quote then, I don’t think would have been advantageous to him. So I tend to believe this quote, which is learned by every Vietnamese child in school. So, interesting. And much more to discover and research on this topic, that pre-Confucianism Vietnam might have been a much more matriarchal society. But that’s beyond my competence, but I think it’s a good area of investigation.

RS: But she led troops in battle, right?

SB: She led troops in battle, and she pushed back the Chinese, one of the Chinese’s many invasions. But in the end, was defeated. And according to some she committed suicide because the Chinese appeared nude to scare her off. There are many, many different versions as to what happened, but she was one of quite a few individual leading female war heroes. 

RS: You know, the reason I’m pushing this is this book contains an enormously important truth that we ignore. Which is that other people have their own history. And they are guided by their own history. And so here we have this country of Vietnam that is seen as, what, this forlorn little place we have to save and bring democracy to, or something. And the idea that they have thousands of years of recorded history, that people have studied and thought about, in the villages and so forth, and that it guides them. And then you think of the rubric of the Cold War. That actually the reason we went to Vietnam was we were upset about the Chinese communist revolution. And we assumed that Vietnam was an extension of either the Soviet Union or the Chinese. The same as the Korean War, and that we had to intervene as part of a battle in the Cold War. We basically–as we did with Tito in Yugoslavia, as we did with Castro in Cuba–we denied the nationalism of people who adopted a variant of communism. 

And then this amazing thing happened: we lost the most ignominious defeat that we’ve ever had in Vietnam. And instead of this being an extension of Chinese communist power, and a threat to our national security, the Vietnamese communists and the Chinese communists went to war. And the veterans of this Vietnam War that you interviewed seemed to all be very concerned about Chinese power. They have a communist country near them that was supposed–they were supposed to be the agents of that; nonetheless, they’re the bulwark against the Chinese. And this history, this thousand years of Chinese occupation–I left out the Japanese occupation, they were on the side of the United States saving pilots and so forth during World War II, and the French occupation that preceded the Japanese and then followed the Japanese. And through all this, there’s a message of other people’s–not just their nationalism, but their desire and need to make their own history. 

And the power of this book–I don’t want it lost, because it’s wonderfully written; it’s nuanced; it introduces us to real human beings. And the real message here is not about intrinsically good guys and bad guys and good systems and bad. It’s about the right of people to make their own history. And it’s an incredibly powerful, cautionary tale about the consequence of people intervening in other people’s history, even when they claim the best of intentions. Is that not what this book is really about?

SB: Yes, Bob, I think you put it better than I could have. It’s exactly what I was trying to get across. 

RS: I’m having a little trouble hearing you, is it–

SB: No, it’s–yes, Bob, it’s exactly what I have been trying to put across. And it’s difficult, because usually it has to be black or white, and it’s not. I think you’ve summarized my message better than I could have myself.

RS: Yeah, but the book does it better than either of us are doing right now. It’s one of the things I’ve found with this podcast, you know; you come across a book that you didn’t even know existed, and you read it, and you say wow, this is a book everyone should read! That’s my feeling about this book. Let me give the title again and get people to read it. It’s On the Ho Chi Minh Trail: The Blood Road, The Women Who Defended It, The Legacy by Sherry Buchanan, a knowledgeable journalist who wrote for the Wall Street Journal, editorial work and writing, and for the international edition of the Herald-Tribune, that used to be one of the more important papers out there. And this is her fourth book about art and war, in the context of Indochina. And it’s a very detailed, researched–but it’s an easy read; I don’t want to get people to not read it, it’s only 250 pages, so that’s a great relief these days of the thousand-page tomes that everybody’s producing. 

And it introduces you–this is the value of this book. My wife stole it from me and was reading it before I could get to it, and she found it compelling. And what it is, is, it introduces you to human beings. And you know, even the French colonialists, for all their failings, felt that the Indochinese people had souls. That they mattered to a god, or what have you. And you know, and we lose that. The neocolonialism of the United States is based on basically ignoring the complexity of other people’s culture. And what you have done is made that culture come alive. In terms of the food, the–under the worst of conditions, how people survived and how they found meaning. And how they found meaning after this devastating war. And then one of the moral causes here is our indifference to reparations, our indifference to the damage we did with the Agent Orange and the carpet-bombing and so forth. Let’s talk a little bit about that. You witnessed, you know, and talked to the people who suffered under this. Tell us what it was like to be on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

SB: Yes, I did–well, it was quite harrowing, really. It was very rewarding, because I think most of the veterans were very pleased, I mean, took it as a sign of respect that I visited and listened to the stories, and engaged with them and wanted to hear their side of the story, as a former enemy. So it was very rewarding, but it was very, very emotionally, very draining. And I’m not complaining about that, but it was just–we were just communicating as human beings, and looking at each other and saying, how can we stop this from happening again. A lot of suffering, but a lot of resilience and heroism. And I have great respect for them, and admiration.

RS: And so, again, we’re going to run out of time here, but just tell us what it was–because you’ve now, and probably, I’m sure in Vietnamese there are good books about this. But this is the best account I’ve heard of being in the war on the Vietnamese side. And again, this is a story about women, primarily. The people holding this trail together, carrying the stuff, suffering under the bombs, were primarily women. I mean, they get the structure, the infrastructure, going. So you know, tell us about that. And you’ve talked to these women now, a number of them, veterans of it.

SB: Well, they were–I guess what’s amazing is the variety of roles that they had in the war. They were, you know, they were trained in weaponry; they knew how to fire guns; some of them served in the anti-air defense teams; they were platoon leaders. They were not just women in support roles. Because I think in our societies we kind of devalue the support role aspect of people, and we reward the more violent combat roles with our military honors. It’s not that I’m pro-war, but if we have to be in war–was just astonished at the number of tasks that they performed, both in combat and in pursuing the well-being of their teams. And their leadership roles, and their ability to juggle those, too. And I thought they had a humanitarian role in the war as well, and I just found that a very compelling story, and something we should look at more.

RS: But at the end of the day–and I guess we’ll wrap this up with this–you know, there’s no good war.

SB: No.

RS: And you’ve talked to heroes of this war, and I think in the main they would say it had to be fought; there was a tradition of patriotism and love of country, that people seem to feel all over the world about their country. And the Vietnamese had a very strong tradition of that. But the consequences are enormous. Enormous. Putting lives back together is very difficult. And we see that with the story of Americans who were involved in that war. You know, the psychological and physical injuries, and so forth; they’re devastating. 

Well, this was visited upon an entire people, really. The bombing was farmers; it wasn’t just of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, it was devastating. I actually went to North Vietnam after the war for Microsoft and saw even then the effects. I had been there, I was in the south in ’64, ’65. And you know, yes, you can talk about the heroism of people who resisted, and I think that’s important. But your book also captures the suffering, and that victory–yes, you know, the Vietnamese are an amazingly forgiving people; that comes through in your book. And I saw that when I went there after the war and so forth. And you know, they’re willing to recognize that many Americans, if not most, were concerned about the devastation and what have you, and tried to stop it. 

But you can’t discount the suffering. You can’t discount the effects of Agent Orange on children, even those who were born after. You can’t–yeah, so let’s not leave that out of the story. This was a major human tragedy, one of the greatest of human tragedies. And we have really buried it somehow; we just do not take ownership of our own errors. I don’t know if that’s your view, but that’s what I got–I felt it before I read your book, but I certainly felt it very strongly after reading On the Ho Chi Minh Trail: The Blood Road, The Women Who Defended It, The Legacy. And it was really–but it wasn’t just the trail that was the blood road. We made all of Southeast Asia, including Cambodia, including Laos, other places that I was in in ’64 and ’65, very peaceful countries–we destroyed these people.

SB: Yes, we did. I agree, I–

RS: And you met them.

SB: I do want to say something about their ability to forgive, which I think is fantastic, and is a strength for them. Because, you know, not being able to forgive holds you back, and I think that’s one of the reasons they’ve been able to move forward after the war. But I do think that they forgive, but they expect the U.S. to take some responsibility. And I think that’s something we haven’t quite understood yet. You know, to say–

RS: Could you speak up a little louder–

SB: They’re forgiving, but as long as we take responsibility for the things that we’ve done. And that’s unexploded ordnance, Agent Orange, at least; and the number of civilians killed, maybe. So all those areas should be looked at again, and we could do some practical things to make this right. For example, at least compensate Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange in the same way as we have American veterans. I think that’s a good start. 

RS: But we don’t. I mean, I was there most recently 25 years ago or so, a little over 20 years ago, I guess, to be accurate. And I was there in Vietnam and Cambodia where they were clearing mines that had been dropped. And then I read in your book they’re still clearing them, yeah, and that the U.S. has given very minimal support. I mean, this has got to be stressed somehow. We visited this devastation upon a country, on a people–and again, I want to put the people in Laos and Cambodia in there, very much. And there is no serious accountability.

SB: None.

RS: That’s just the reality. There is no serious accountability. And I read your book and it sort of made my blood boil, in a way. The indifference to it. And yeah, there are veterans who have gone there and started worthwhile projects with children and what have you; there are scattered efforts. But we’ve never taken any ownership of this, and we’ve never assumed we had some debt, some real moral debt here to pay. 

SB: But at least it’s started. And I think in the last five years it’s a lot better than it has been. So the U.S. has funded the cleanup of two dioxin hotspots; I think there are 28. So there’s a move afoot again, and I think if we raise the awareness, that perhaps we can finally put this chapter behind us by doing something concrete and practical to remedy it. 

RS: But why should we put it behind us? We’ve had other chapters. I mean, this is maybe where we disagree. But I’m sort of, kind of tired of the idea that we are the ones that need closure. We need to learn some very painful lessons here. And we resist it. And so if you don’t have accountability, recognize what you’ve done and what you continue to do–I mean, come up. We supplied munitions for the war in Yemen, for goodness’ sake; that’s today, yesterday, you know. We bring a lot of damage to a lot of places, and we do it in the name of democracy and freedom so it sounds good. 

And you know, isn’t one reason why we’re kinder towards Vietnam is that Vietnamese communism produced a capitalism which we think is going to be a good check against Chinese communist capitalism? And so we’d like Apple to move to places like Vietnam, as the most likely one to be some counterpower to China? It’s bizarre! We fought a war against these people because they were communist, and now we’re concerned about them because they’re too effective as capitalists. It mocks–you were at the Fletcher School of Diplomacy, you studied at Smith College, and you’re a journalist. Isn’t it one of the most bizarre chapters, that in the name of communism we visited this carnage upon people, and now we have good communists and bad communists, not because they’re communist but because of their vigorous, aggressive approach to capitalism? They’re still run by communist parties, both these countries.

SB: They are, they are. 

RS: So isn’t this lunacy?

SB: Well, I guess you can see it as lunacy; I’m trying to see this as a turning point for the U.S. to–

RS: Oh, OK.

SB: –to look at the entire post-World War II period, where we repeated this over and over again, and to change. So that’s–I don’t mean by “putting it behind us”–on the contrary, we should put that whole period, we should relook at everything we visited on other people in the post-World War II period, and change.

RS: OK, well, that’s a good way to conclude this. On the Ho Chi Minh Trail: The Blood Road, The Women Who Defended It, The Legacy. And I think the power of this book–I think it’s a beautiful book, in terms of its nuanced view of the human condition, and challenging stereotypes–you read this book and you realize that these are people. And these are people with thousands of years of complex history, much more complex and certainly longer than our own. And that, really, the cynicism that starts with, you know, our history as the center of the world–which after all is an arrogance that informs a lot of countries, including China. But you know, the book is a challenge to that. You meet people, and you meet the people who were the enemy, and you see they’re not the same, maybe, as they thought then; and they change, and they grow, and they have contradictions, and they are thoughtful. 

So on that note, let me just say, on the Ho Chi Minh Trail–you’re going to meet the enemy. The enemy are mostly women, women of great courage challenging a sort of macho view of war. These are the women, really, who broke the back of the American military intervention in Vietnam, and forced the peace. And well worth reading. So thanks for doing this, Sherry Buchanan. And check out the book.

I want to thank Christopher Ho at KCRW, our producer there who gets these things posted at the great FM station in Santa Monica, NPR station. I want to thank Natasha Hakimi Zapata for writing the introductions, Lucy Berbeo for doing the transcription. Joshua Scheer, our executive producer, holds this whole thing together. And the JWK Foundation, which in the memory of Jean Stein provides some critical support for doing this show. See you next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence. 

1 comment

  1. The introduction to the Vietnam war, while true, is a bit sketchy. I think L. Fletcher Prouty gave the best description of its genesis. War materiel left unused at the end of WWII in Japan was shipped to Ho Chi Minh to use in the fight against the French, who as noted were defeated in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, a devastating defeat for a colonial power. Ho Chi Minh was poised to become the George Washington of his time, as his naive rhetoric showed.
    But the CIA had other plans.
    A million or more Catholics, mostly aligned with the French, were then moved in a great boat lift to South Vietnam, where they were thrown into conflict with the natives there, intentionally by the CIA.
    Conflict between the South Vietnamese “natives”– clannish farmers who lived a marginal existence for hundreds of years in peace– and the Catholic “newcomers” built into a civil war, fanned by the CIA and linked to the “communists” to the north. The Catholics were given plum government military and administrative jobs particularly after Ngo Dinh Diem, the Juan Guaido of his times, arrived from the Seminary in New Jersey. The newcomers were openly hostile to the “natives”, as the CIA had planned. Chinese merchants were critical to the “native” economy (they bartered for rice and other crops moving freely from village to village) but were banned by the new (CIA-controlled) government, intentionally making the situation much worse.
    So the CIA had secretly engineered the overthrow of the French with the idea that the US could dominate the region based on the remnants of French colonialism, a puppet Catholic government, and the American military (brought it when the CIA could no longer control the situation).
    The bulwark against communism was just an excuse, as it was for the overthrow of Indonesia and East Timor; lots of oil at stake in the 1970s.
    What is amazing is that Americans, even Democrats, want the CIA, the same people and mindset, to be running our foreign policy today.
    Sorry, off topic from the book, which I look forward to reading.

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