Marking 40 Years Since the Paris Agreement Ended the War in Vietnam
by Jerry Elmer
HANOI, Vietnam – January 27, 2013 was the fortieth anniversary of the signing of the Paris Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Viet Nam (Paris Agreement). Probably not one American in a thousand is aware of the occasion.
But here in Vietnam this anniversary is hugely important and is being marked with much pomp and festivities. The main event was an official commemoration ceremony in the National Conventional Center. Vietnam’s President, Truong Tan San, important cabinet members, and leading Communist Party officials all attended, as did ambassadors from many countries and delegations from around the world. The program included a multimedia performance that included dance and music; and the President awarded a medal to the now-elderly Madame Nguyen Thi Binh, the lead negotiator in Paris for the Provisional Revolutionary Government, or PRG (referred to in the United States pejoratively, and inaccurately, as the Viet Cong).
One of the most honored delegations here was the one from the United States, about 15 U.S. citizens who were active in the anti-war movement during the war years, including former Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit, and former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark. Our delegation was given a police escort through Hanoi to the Convention Center (which caused no end of traffic snarls in Hanoi’s already horrific traffic). We were greeted at the Convention Center by a Vietnamese military honor guard and the military band struck up a John Philip Sousa march as we entered. After the official ceremony, we dined with the President and top Party officials. We have been interviewed on national television. The honor that we were given here is in keeping with the long-time official line of the Communist Party of Vietnam which was that during the long American War (as it called here, to distinguish it from the “French War”), it was the American government that was conducting the war, but the American people wanted peace. (The Communist Party of Vietnam was, sadly, not entirely correct about that.)
To understand why the Paris Agreement is so important to the Vietnamese, it is necessary to know something of Vietnamese history.
Vietnam has a long history of foreign domination. For centuries, Vietnam’s larger and more powerful neighbor to the north, China, dominated much of Vietnam following successive invasions. The famous Trưng sisters, who, riding elephants, led a first-century uprising against the hated Chinese invaders, are popular figures of Vietnamese legend. The French colonized Vietnam in the nineteenth century, and Japan conquered Vietnam during World War II. In 1945, there was a famine here, caused by the brutal Japanese occupation; by some estimates, that famine killed 20% of the population.
Japan surrendered on August 9, 1945, ending World War II. Three weeks later, on September 2, 1945, Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam’s independence. But France moved back in after the war and attempted to re-take its former colony. After nine years, the French were defeated at the Battle of Điện Biên Phủ in 1954.
The French colonial period was ended by the Geneva Agreement on Vietnam of 1954. The document is crucial to understanding the U.S.-Vietnam War of 1963-1975. Article I, Section 1 of the Geneva Agreement declares that there is only one Vietnam, not two, with the 17th parallel a temporary, military ceasefire line, not a political boundary between countries. The Geneva Agreement provided for free elections in a single, unified country no later than 1956.
In 1956, the Vietnamese were preparing for the free elections in a unified Vietnam mandated by the Geneva Agreement. However, the CIA told President Eisenhower (correctly) that Ho Chi Minh would win any free election in Vietnam. So, as Eisenhower explained in his memoirs, he called off the Vietnamese elections. (Do a thought experiment. Imagine how Americans would have felt if Joseph Stalin had called off the U.S. election in 1952 because he did not like the projected winner; or if Osama bin Laden had called off the U.S. election in 2004 because he did not like George Bush!) Eisenhower then set up a second, illegitimate government in southern Vietnam, in Saigon. Eisenhower installed Ngô Đình Diệm, a Catholic who was living in New Jersey at the time, as head of this second government. The cancelling of the elections, the creation of a second Vietnam, and the installation of Diệm in power were all direct violations of the Geneva Agreement by the United States.
Diệm was manifestly unpopular with the Vietnamese. Buddhist monks immolated themselves in the streets of Saigon to protest Diệm’s repression, including Thich (Venerable) Quảng Đức, who immolated himself in Saigon on June 11, 1963. (New York Times reporter Malcolm Browne, who died August 27, 2012, took the iconic photograph of Đức’s self-immolation.) The Catholic Diem did not become more popular with his Buddhist country-people when his wife offered free gasoline and matches to any Buddhists who wanted to protest her husband’s repression by burning themselves.
Diệm was overthrown in a coup on November 1, 1963; and it was to support the following succession of unpopular dictators in Saigon that the United States sent 500,000 troops to Vietnam.
The overall contours of what Americans call the Vietnam War were really quite simple. The Vietnamese wanted freedom and independence, just as they had wanted freedom and independence for millennia. The Geneva Agreement had guaranteed the Vietnamese freedom, independence, and a united country. The United States wanted to maintain a client state with a puppet government in Saigon, against the will of the Vietnamese people – and was willing to send 500,000 troops to keep that unpopular puppet government in power.
Chapter I, Article 1 of the Paris Agreement says: “The United States respects the independence, sovereignty, unity, and territorial integrity of Viet-Nam as recognized by the 1954 Geneva Agreements on Viet-Nam.” The reason that this was so important to the Vietnamese is that this was exactly, precisely what they had been fighting for for generations – against the Chinese, against the Japanese, against the French, against the Americans. The Vietnamese wanted a united country that was independent and sovereign.
To a person, every speaker at the festivities here quoted (or paraphrased) the words of the Paris Agreement as guaranteeing Vietnam’s independence, sovereignty, unity, and territorial integrity. “Unity,” of course, means that Vietnam is one country, not two; and “independence” means that there won’t be foreign occupying troops here.
Most people in the United States – hawk and dove alike – never really understood that the Vietnamese were simply fighting for independence and freedom.
To the hawks, the Vietnam War was about Communist aggression. On May 8, 1972, President Nixon made a somber, nationally televised address to the nation from the Oval Office. The very first sentence uttered by Nixon was: “Five weeks ago, on Easter weekend, the Communist armies of North Vietnam launched a massive invasion of South Vietnam….” Nixon’s statement correctly and accurately summed up the American view of the war.
And it was completely wrong. According to the Geneva Agreement, there was no such thing as “North Vietnam” or “South Vietnam.” There was only one, unified Vietnam. So-called “North Vietnamese” troops in so-called “South Vietnam” were no more an “invasion” than American troops in Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, are an “invasion” – even if the soldiers come from, say, Vermont. There was an invasion of Vietnam, but it was by 500,000 foreign troops. Vietnamese troops in Vietnam were not an invasion; American troops were.
Sadly, many of the doves had it wrong, too. To many people in the peace movement, the Vietnam War was a civil war in which the United States should not meddle. How would Americans like it, the reasoning went, if foreigners had meddled in the U.S. civil war? So, too, the United States should not meddle in a civil war between North Vietnam and South Vietnam.
This, too, was completely wrong – again, because under the Geneva Agreement, there was no such thing as a “North Vietnam” and “South Vietnam.” The Vietnam War was not a civil war; it was a conflict between the Vietnamese who were fighting for independence and freedom (and adherence to the Geneva Agreement of 1954) and a brutal, foreign, invading army.
Article II, Section 3, subpart (b), of the Paris Agreement provided for a ceasefire in place in southern Vietnam, unlike the 1954 Geneva Agreement, which had provided for some regrouping of forces north (Communist) and south (non-Communist) of the 17th parallel. This provision in the Paris Agreement was important because it created what was referred to at the time as a leopard-spot pattern in southern Vietnam. Some portions of southern Vietnam were controlled by the U.S.-backed Saigon government, but much of southern Vietnam was controlled by the PRG. The interstitial nature of control in the southern part of the country was redolent of a leopard’s spots.
At the time the peace agreement was signed I was working for the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), the co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947. We had staff in southern Vietnam, and they reported the very different responses to the Paris Agreement in territory controlled by the PRG and in territory controlled by Saigon. The PRG printed and distributed thousands of copies of the Paris Agreement, and PRG cadre went from village to village distributing the Agreement and explaining its provisions. In Saigon-controlled territory, possession of the Agreement was made a criminal offense.
In the months after the signing of the Paris Agreement, the PRG followed the ceasefire requirements scrupulously. The Saigon side violated the Agreement immediately and extensively. For example, after the Paris Agreement was signed, the Saigon government continued bombing PRG-controlled territory in southern Vietnam – using American planes, fueled with American oil, dropping American-made bombs.
During the months after the signing of the Paris Agreement, those of us in the U.S. anti-war movement were upset both at the continuing violations of the agreement by the Saigon side and the continued U.S. funding for those violations. We tried very hard – and with distinctly modest success – to explain to our fellow Americans that the war was not over, and that American opposition to the continuing war was crucially important. With the war continuing, with the bombing of southern Vietnam continuing, we wondered bitterly how much value there really was in the Paris Agreement.
The Vietnamese, however, viewed the Paris Agreement very differently. As speaker after speaker made clear this week during the festivities, the Paris Agreement created the conditions that led, in April 1975, to the liberation of southern Vietnam and the reunification of the country. It did this, first, by forcing the withdrawal of American troops; and, second, by the cease-fire-in-place required by Article II, Section 3 (with no Geneva-like “regrouping”).
I felt unbelievably honored to have been invited here to observe and participate in the festivities commemorating the Paris Agreement. The genuine warmth and friendship with which we Americans were greeted at every event moved me to tears. That warmth is especially notable in view of what the United States did here during the war. While I have my doubts about the Vietnamese view that during the war the American people were the friends of the Vietnamese and wanted peace, I have absolutely no doubt whatever that the Vietnamese’s warmth and desire for friendship with the United States is entirely sincere and genuine. We American peace activists have been wined and dined by the country’s top leaders at not one, but two, formal banquets. Yesterday I was interviewed on national television twice about my role in the U.S. peace movement; and today, on yet a third nationally televised TV show they asked the U.S. peace activists who had been arrested for peace activity during the war to stand in order to receive a sustained round of applause from an auditorium full of Vietnamese. It was another deeply moving experience.
When I told my friend Hoang Cong Thuy that I was a bit surprised at the obvious warmth that so many Vietnamese show for Americans, he said, “Vietnamese have a saying: ‘When you eat the fruit, think of the person who planted the tree.’ The American peace movement helped us achieve liberation, and we are grateful.”
Jerry Elmer is the author of Felon for Peace: The Memoir of a Vietnam-Era Draft Resister. The book has been published in Vietnam as Tôi phạm vì hòa bìng, by Thế Giới Publishing House in Hanoi, which is bringing out a third edition of the book in January on the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Paris Agreement.