California Democrats seem to have a problem with communists.  Rep. Karen Bass of Los Angeles was on the Biden short list for vice president until her praise of “commandante Fidel” came out, and Democrats fearing the loss of anti-Castro Florida dropped her from contention.  That was followed by the bizarre praise of communist leader Ho Chi Minh by a Democratic Party leader in Orange County.

Orange County is home to 180,000 Vietnamese Americans whose families fled communist Vietnam, yet Jeff LeTourneau, vice chair of the Orange County Democratic party, posted this on social media: “Ho Chi Minh liberated an entirely poor colonized nation from 2 of the most imperial military forces in the world (the US and France) and won full independence for the people of Vietnam.” 

Outrage from the Vietnamese community was immediate, and Orange County Democrats not wanting to blow their campaigns in that county forced LeTourneau to resign his position with the party.  But the incident underscores how little many Americans know of Vietnam or America’s long war there that cost 58,000 lives and billions in American treasure.

This statement is nonsense on several levels.  Let’s start with “two of the most imperial military forces in the world (the US and France).”  France colonized Vietnam in 1862, but in 1940, with the fall of France to the Nazis, their Indochina empire (Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos) was occupied by imperial Japan.  In 1945, with Japan defeated, France tried to re-establish its control over Vietnam, setting off what the Vietnamese later called the “French War.”  

France as hardly an “imperial power” in 1945, soon it would be forced out of Africa and later Algeria.  The United States did not want France to return to Vietnam but got caught up in support of their NATO ally in the “French War.”  That war ended in 1954 with the fall of Dien Bien Phu, a French garrison, and France was out of Vietnam.

The peace accords at Geneva to end that war divided Vietnam into two countries, to be reunited later in an election.  But the nation was already beset by a civil war between nationalist forces who controlled South Vietnam and communist forces who controlled North Vietnam.  Distrust between the sides meant no elections ever took place.

America got drawn into the Vietnamese civil war by the need to “contain” communism and by the Domino Theory, communists had taken China, most of Indochina and had to be stopped or they would take over the Pacific, so South Vietnam became the place to stop them.  This was hardly an American “imperial” war, in fact it was just the opposite; today recognized as the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time.   America went to war in a country it knew practically nothing about driven by romantic ideals to “pay any price; bear any burden, to assure the survival of liberty.”

Then there is Ho Chi Minh.  He did not win “full independence for the people of Vietnam”, in fact he was long dead by the time “full independence” came in 1975.  Ho Chi Minh was a figure head during the wars, he was not a military leader.  Ken Burns in his excellent series on the Vietnam War points out that communist party boss Le Duan really ran the war against the Americans and was willing to sacrifice hundreds of thousands of his own people as part of his military strategy.

The 1975 communist conquest of South Vietnam and unifying of the country led to 10 years of failed socialist economic policies and in the middle 1980s the Vietnamese junked socialism for “doi moi”, a free market economy.  Vietnam today is far less socialist than many left wing American cities.  

In fact, as many Americans travelling there have found, no one likes Americans more than the people of Vietnam.  As for France, many of the old colonial era French buildings have been restored.  Have a meal at the Restaurant Le Beaulieu in the Hotel Metropole in Hanoi’s French Quarter and you’ll think you are in Paris.  China Beach at Da Nang, where the American Marines waded ashore in 1965, is now dotted with luxury beachfront resorts catering to European and American clientele.

Oh, and ask the Vietnamese who their real enemy is today and they will reply, as they have for 2,000 years, that it is the imperialist dragon to their north called China – not France or the United States.

History never quite works out like you think, and nowhere is that truer than with America’s involvement in Vietnam.