A Fine and Timely Book – Carl Oglesby’s Ravens in the Storm, Part II by Daniel N. White

by Daniel N. White
Featured Writer
Dandelion Salad

Part II

As good a wordsmith as Oglesby is, the best, deepest, and truest words in this book of his don’t come from him.  Instead, they come from several Vietnamese intellectuals he met and talked with in South Vietnam in a trip he took there in August 1965, shortly after his election to SDS’ presidency.  I do not know that their words are timeless, in fact I pray that they are not, but they certainly are the wisest, finest words ever said about the United States intervening in other countries’ affairs.  In light of our current wars, they require a close and careful reading, followed by ingestion, digestion, and incorporation into all of our minds and hearts.

Oglesby’s first meeting was with some wealthy Vietnamese from the Vietnamese privileged class, who were all used to power, privilege, and security.  I would call this bunch westernized frenchified Confucians.  Unlike most of their westernized countrymen, who were the one group of Vietnamese who were inclined to support the US’ war and interventionist policies, they had grave doubts about the US’ intervention, military and political, in their country.  Oglesby describes them, tellingly, on p 66:

“…In common they were all used to power, privilege, and security, and perhaps at that moment they were beyond all three.  They consciously identified with the French nobles of the eighteenth century who sided with the revolution.  ‘They were fully aware,’ said one with a wry smile, ‘that their own heads might well be among the first to roll whether the revolution failed or succeeded.'”

Unquestionably they all were Vietnamese patriots, first and foremost.  At a dinner meeting with them, on pp66-68:

“‘The war must be ended at any cost,’ said our host after dinner…’Those who draw historical diagrams in well-guarded mansions and speak of the unfortunate necessity of war, these are men who have not looked at war face to face.’  He showed us glossy photographs of civilian napalm victims, of children whose phosphor-pellet wounds were beyond the ken of medical care.  ‘This is all one may say of this war,’ he said quietly.  ‘Nothing else.’  He claimed they all feared the Communists.  A communist victory, he said, would be a personal defeat for each of them.  ‘But what we fear is not what the people fear.  For the people, all that communism means is a change.  For them, any change at all would be an improvement.’

“‘Even with peace,’ another added, ‘the lives of the people will remain wretched.  Even with peace, a Vietnamese peasant can expect to live forty years.  Nothing the Viet Cong can do to the people will make their lives worse than they already are.  This might be true of the government, too, but the government wants to do nothing for the people.  Now suddenly there are a few provinces where the government builds schools and hospitals, but there are no teachers or doctors to staff them–only soldiers.  The government builds these shells to prove that it loves the people.  Why not before?’….’Win the war, the government says, then help the people.  But the people see through this.  The government helps them only because it needs their support to win the war.  For six years,{1955-61} there was no war.  The people got nothing from Diem {the US installed dictator of South Vietnam} but promises that were made only in order to be broken.’

“Showing some anger, our host broke in to say, ‘Why was this permitted?’  He seemed to address his question more to his group than to ours.  ‘We had so much American money!  We might have done so much!  Instead, half the money was deposited in secret personal accounts in Swiss banks, and with the other half we bought guns and made an army because we wanted to frighten the people out of sympathizing with the revolutionaries.  This was a colossal strategic error, my friends.  The people always knew where the money that was meant for them was going.’

“Browne [Oglesby’s fellow SDS tourmember] asked if he might be somewhat exaggerating the political sophistication of ‘the people.’

“One guest answered:  ‘Only think of what you know.  Off and on for thirty years, mostly on, the peasant of Vietnam has been at war and has seen foreign troops everywhere, every day.  First the French, then the Japanese, then the British.  In the North, there were the Kuomintang Chinese.  Then the French came again.  And now the Americans are here.  Any war, and especially this kind, a war against guerilla forces, politically speaking, is a highly educational experience.  Reading?  No.  Arithmetic?  Just enough to count liters of rice.  But the politics of war?  Yes.  From his childhood to his grave, the peasant of today’s Vietnam is schooled in the politics of war.   It is not like being an American farmer.’

“Our host broke in to argue that this was no longer relevant.  ‘The people want only peace.’  he said.  ‘If the people were allowed to choose between war and the Front {the NLF, the VC}, seventy percent would choose the VC.  At least.’

“I said, ‘But what if the choice were between war and a peace under a government controlled by the United States?  Would seventy percent still prefer peace?’

“The question seemed to divide them, and they spoke among themselves in Vietnamese.  It was as if they had disappeared from view for a moment.  Then they resurfaced, most of them nodding.  Our host said that we would perhaps find the answer to that somewhat difficult, though it was substantially what we heard a few days later from another gentleman of Vietnam, a vibrant young journalist of no apparent faction.”

The journalist’s name was Cao Giao, who had been a Viet Minh until the 1954 cease-fire.  In the following years under Diem, he had been imprisoned, become a leader of a Vietnamese socialist party, and had in 1959 become a trainer for Diem’s guerilla forces then being trained (and used) for covert (and completely unsuccessful) guerilla operations in North Vietnam.  Since 1963 {when Diem died} he had been an editor of an opposition paper that continually changed its name to escape government censorship and shuttering.

On pp69-70, Cao says:

“‘This government,’ he said with a smile and a shrug, ‘is a mere impostor. Who doubts this?  Who does not know it?  You Americans like to say the Vietnam problem is complex.  But this is only an excuse to not face the truth.  The truth is that the Vietnam problem is not complex at all.  It is only impossible.  Do you see?  If it was complex, you could try to solve it.  But it is simple because it is impossible.  Because it is simple it cannot be solved.’  He laughed.  I nodded soberly while trying to get his words onto paper and wondering if Cao had some kind of Oriental thing for riddles.

“‘Vietnam needs two simple things,’ he said.  ‘It needs to be independent, one.  And two, it needs to be rich again, as in the old kingdom.  These needs stand together and cannot be separated, but they cannot both be satisfied at the same time.  Any regime that makes us free will also make us poor. Any regime that makes us rich will also make us slaves.  Do you not see?  This is very simple.  An honest Vietnamese government that embraces the Americans might develop Vietnam, but it cannot make Vietnam independent.  A government that frees itself from the Americans can make Vietnam independent, but it cannot develop it.’

“‘Where does this leave you?’ I said.

“He shrugged and smiled.  ‘Do our officials struggle with this dilemma?’ he said.  ‘No.  Their only struggle is to deposit as much American cash as they can get their hands on in the banks of Paris.  Do you think this theft is disguised?  It is part of the office routine!’

“Cao paused a moment to see that we were getting it, then dropped his grin, and for some reason his English for a moment, and leaned toward us.  ‘Je connais les Rouges tres bien,’ he said with a very un-Vietnamese glare.  ‘The Viet Minh will make us a drab people.  Communists do not tolerate the bizarre.  They mistrust the artist, the critic, the lonely spirit.  See what a gray city they have made of Hanoi!’…’But!  They promise both independence and development.  And they can easily deceive the people because they say what the people want to hear.  This is why they grow.  We do not give the Viet Cong the opportunity to expose themselves as makers of false promises.  We provide them with excuses for their failures.  We justify the tyranny they would impose in any case.’

“Mirsky {another member of the SDS delegation} said, ‘So we have to ask again, Cao, what do you conclude from this analysis?’

“‘This is the reality we face,’ he said.  ‘The Viet Cong are winning the war.  Why?  Because they are winning the trust of ordinary Vietnamese people.  This is disgraceful for us.  It is tragic for Vietnam.  But the Viet Cong started small and are growing large.  The government started large and is growing small.  Why does this happen?  This happens because the government has nothing to say to the people.  Now we ask the people to fight for what this Nguyen Cao Ky {President and Vice President of South Vietnam} has the insolence to call “freedom.”  Nonsense!  What freedom did he ever show them?  And what freedom do the peasants want when their children die from hunger and sickness even when there is no fighting?  We must stop pretending to be happy for this empty American freedom.  We must rise instead to attack the Viet Cong as traitors to the nationalist revolution.  We must help the people become healthy again.  Then maybe the people will come with us.  Do you see?’

“…Cao leaned back and resumed in a cooler voice.  ‘Allow me to tell you another truth, aa truth of equal simplicity and importance.  Carl, I understand that you are a writer.  You must write this.  The problems of Vietnam must not be seen through Cold War eyes.  Do you understand?  We do not want to be eaten for dinner by Comrade Mao.  But we cannot stand like sentries on America’s side.  That would betray Asia as well as ourselves.  You must learn this.  What is happening to us in South Vietnam feels like invasion and conquest.  You tell yourselves that you are our liberators.  But the Vietnamese are not fools.  Must we choose between being conquered by Ho Chi Minh and being conquered by Johnson?  Tell me which one is a countryman?’

“‘And there is something else you Americans must understand,’ he said, no longer pausing to make sure he was getting through.  ‘We Vietnamese detest foreign meddlers, but worse yet in our eyes are the Vietnamese who collaborate with foreign meddlers.  This was true when the French were here. It remains true now that you Americans are here.  You tell us that you are different.  But for us Vietnamese, the difference is hard to see.  Both are white.  Both are tall.  Both carry big guns.  Both pretend to know what they are doing here.’

“Despite his clarity from sentence to sentence, Cao Giao was confusing me.  I broke in to say, ‘Does this mean you favor an American withdrawal?  Are you saying the United States should just get out of Vietnam?  Are the Viet Cong right?’

“‘No.’ he said, showing no hesitancy.  ‘If you withdraw your soldiers, our soldiers will throw down their weapons where the Viet Cong will find them.  The Viet Cong will march into Saigon.  You must protect and care for the ones you have hurt.  You must help repair the damage you have done.  But you must let us find our own path to a new government.  Any government you try to make will only make our lives worse than your army has already made them.’

“‘But what could that mean?’ I asked.  How could the United States disengage politically while remaining militarily involved and continuing to supply economic aid?

“Cao’s lucidity faltered.  He flicked his hands this way and that, then he flared.  ‘But this is your problem.’  he said, showing a touch of anger.  ‘Why?  Because you have made it your problem.  We Vietnamese did not make the decisions that brought you here.  We Vietnamese did not divide Vietnam in half and make us go to war against each other.  But for your own sake as well as ours, if you understand nothing else, you must understand this.’  He opened his fingers and looked at us piercingly, speaking one word at a time.  ‘Any Vietnamese solution to Vietnam’s problems is better than any American solution.  If America refuses to see this, many lives will be lost for nothing.  I cannot say that I know America well.  But I think if you ignore this simple fact, you will lose something in your heart.  You will become something that I think you do not want to be.'”

What more is there to be said?  These brave Vietnamese patriots nailed America’s problems and foolishnesses in its adventures abroad in 1965 better than anyone else ever did.  It is obvious, too, that each and every word of theirs then about their Vietnam and America then is equally true of Iraq and Afghanistan and America now.  We Americans learned no lessons then or since, no right lessons at any rate, and are repeating our foolishnesses, which must by now be called evilnesses, again, upon two other countries’ peoples.  And we must look hard at ourselves, for doing this again, for our inability to learn, and listen to others, and our repeated cold heartlessness to inflict our war and destruction and death on two countries whose nations and peoples have done ours no injury, and ask ourselves if in fact Cao Giao’s prediction of us has come true, that we have lost something important in our hearts, that we have become something that we do not want to be.  Unless, perhaps, it is some dark something at some deep unconscious level that we have wanted to be, and are working at becoming, and our wars are a manifestation of this terrible sick desire.  If that is so, then God’s mercy on all of us.

From the archives:

A Fine and Timely Book – Carl Oglesby’s Ravens in the Storm, Part I by Daniel N. White

2 thoughts on “A Fine and Timely Book – Carl Oglesby’s Ravens in the Storm, Part II by Daniel N. White

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