The Americanization of Vietnam

David Halberstam’s classic Playboy article….

David Halberstam (1934-2007) was a renowned Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who made his name reporting the Vietnam War in its then infancy for The New York Times. He was a journalist known for his suspicion of American Government officials and more especially the military leaders on the ground in South East Asia whose accounts of the war he was often at odds with.

Halberstam was assigned to Vietnam in 1962 and 1963 before the Americans committed ground troops and heavy artillery. His was the time of the ‘special advisors’ who had appeared in Saigon and their uprooting of the remnants of French Colonialism so brilliantly depicted in Graham Greene’s classic The Quiet American (1955) Indeed, it was Greene’s novel which Halberstam based much of his exceptional January 1970 article for Playboy magazine on, a book which clearly struck a chord with him and his fellow journalists at the time.

There were not many reporters there in the late summer of 1962, still just a handful of us (a few years later there would be 500, in true battalion strength), we used to sit in the small French cafés and talk about Greene’s book. It seemed at that time, and now more than ever, the best novel about Vietnam’

In The Americanization of Vietnam, which would be followed up by The Vietnamization of America a year later in 1971, Halberstam charts the rise of American imperialism as the British, French and Belgian powers dwindled following bloody encounters in the Malaya, Vietnam and the Congo. Of them all, Britain, Halberstam suggested, was the standard bearer for colonial occupation. The British, whilst no love was lost with their departure, had at least, left the ‘natives’ with structure, institutions, armies and police forces. The French, routed in bloody battles, had left Guinea and Vietnam in an awful state; telephones ripped out and prisons emptied of their inmates as they fled in humiliating defeat.

Halberstam, observes how, despite the Americans mocking of the French debacle in Vietnam, they themselves repeated the same mistakes. He wrote how one American journalist asked a French foreign official for his view on the war: “It is very much like the divorced man who hears that his former wife and her second husband are about to get a divorce” America soon realised that their hopes of staving off the Communists in a way the French could not, was looking increasingly unlikely; ‘Now we are both the initiator and the victim of a hopeless, bitter war that has ripped aside so many of our more comfortable illusions about ourselves. We are shorter of slogans now, less quick, I think, to mock the French or even the Belgians’.

Once again, Halberstam reverts back to Greene: ‘Graham Greene’s book, now almost fifteen years old, no longer looks like a caricature of ourselves. We have become the caricature, not the book; rather, the book abounds with a prophetic sense.’ By the time of this article the Americans had, of course, become entrenched in Vietnam and brought America to a country better off without it. This Americanisation of the country came on the back of the GI culture where ‘thousands of Vietnamese women degrading themselves as bar girls and prostitutes, gangs of beggars and hoodlums and children selling their older sisters and picking pockets have become ubiquitous creatures of urban life’ America’s desire to see Vietnam morph into an urbanised society which it could understand and help justify its actions came to fruition through its bombing of the countryside. More and more of the villagers left their homes for the relative safety of the relocation centres, as Halberstam wrote ‘immigrants in their own land’. And so the Americanisation began:

The new generation of Vietnamese was, of course, in the cities. It learnt to speak English and to operate on the periphery of legality, sensing where the money was and how to get it, in the ports, in the bars and bam-bam parlors, in the export-import business’

Greene’s character, Pyle came to represent America’s attitude and Halberstam quotes Greene’s novel; ‘He didn’t even hear what I said; he was absorbed already in the dilemmas of democracy and the responsibilities of the West; he was determined-I learned that very soon-to do good not to any individual person, but to a country, a continent, a world. Well he was in his element now, with the whole universe to improve’ An attitude which continued across its foreign policy for years to follow.

This commitment to Vietnam came, as Halberstam states, from ‘arrogance, naïveté, blind faith in American power and American righteousness and an obsessive fear of the Communists.’ They ridiculed suggestions they would be entrenched in Vietnam like the British in Malaya, they could not comprehend the notion of defeat, believing their technology both militarily and domestically to be the answer. It wasn’t, and like the French before them, they could not understand the Vietnamese lack of ‘gratitude’. So misinformed, so obsessed with the monopoly board of the Cold War, so ignorant of human life. Halberstam’s essay is a thoughtful yet damming analysis of the quagmire America had created for itself, a long and brilliantly structured piece and thankfully given the widest audience possible thanks to Hugh Heffner’s insistence on publishing quality journalism written by quality journalists.

For information on Edward Lansdale, the so-called ‘real-life Pyle’, please click here


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