On December 20, 1960, the day I turned 12 years old, Le Duan organized the National Liberation Front (‘NLF’) composed of various groups in North Vietnam that were dedicated to getting rid of President Ngô Dinh Diêm’s regime in the south and, to effect the overthrow of the South Vietnamese government and the reunification of North and South Vietnam. The North Vietnamese had never liked the division of the country after the defeat of the French in the colonial war. They accepted that division reluctantly.
Frankly, there was nothing unreasonable about that goal. Vietnam had been one country until the Geneva accords of 1954 and the government of the south was corrupt, undemocratic, and unpopular. What gave the colonial powers like France and the United States, their patron, the right to divide the country?
The NFL called their forces the Peoples’ Liberation Armed Forces, but their enemies in the south preferred a more disparaging name—i.e. Communist Traitors to the Vietnamese Nation or Vietcong or V.C.
Like English Prime Minister Churchill at Dunkirk, the Vietcong leaders said that they would fight the South Vietnamese regime to the last person. Those are brave words. Yet there were many times in the 14 years that followed that this proved to be true. No matter how heavy their casualties they always kept coming back for more. Their dedication and determination was extraordinary. The Americans were stunned. It was the sort of dedication that few soldiers have unless they are defending their homeland. The people agreed with their leaders that they would fight to the last man, but they really had no idea at the time how heavy a price they would have to pay to fight as promised, against the regime in the south, after it obtained the support of the most wealthy nation on earth equipped with the most advanced and expensive weaponry known to man. Their task was immense. “History will judge if the sacrifice was worth the war, for that war turned out to astonishingly brutal.”
President John F. Kennedy also eloquently described the American resolve once the Americans got into combat: “Let every nation now, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any force, to ensure the survival and success of liberty.”
Thus with the statements from their leaders the two sides were irrevocably bent on a war to the finish, no matter what the cost. That cost on both sides, but particularly the north would be immense. The cost of course was born on both sides by the fighting men and women as well as civilians. It was not born on either side personally by the political leaders who pronounced the brave words. As is so often the case the leaders utter fierce and brave words, but they are seldom the ones who must pay the awful price. That falls to others.
There are many problems with brave words uttered by political leaders far from the front where people are dying. Often they are made to win favor with the people back home who are lusting for war. They are lusting for war, but they want others to fight that war. Often those people uttering brave words are political leaders whose own children are also far from the war front, safe in comfortable schools or places like the National Guard.
More important even than that however is the fact that such brave words make any kind of negotiated peace very difficult to achieve. No one negotiates with the devil. That’s one reason why we must always be wary of demonizing the enemy. That’s one reason why we must always be wary of brave words from our leaders. When it comes to leaders there are many things we should worry about, this is just one of them.