Lind on Halberstam on Ho

The biases of the sixties-era liberal left are manifested most clearly in polemics written at the time of the Vietnam War by journalists such as Frances Fitzgerald and David Halberstam. Fitzgerald ended her Pulitzer Prize-winning tract Fire in the Lake with a hopeful vision of a time when “the narrow flame of revolution [would] cleanse the lake of Vietnamese society” and purge it of “‘individualism’ and its attendant corruption.” Similar undisguised admiration for the communists pervades David Halberstam’s Ho (1971). Halberstam’s book is perhaps the most sympathetic portrait of a Stalinist dictator ever penned by a reputable American journalist identified with the liberal rather than the radical left.

In Ho, Halberstam omits any mention of the repression or atrocities of Ho Chi Minh’s regime. For example, Halberstam writes that in August 1945, “the Vietminh had in one quick stroke taken over the nationalism of the country, that Ho had achieved the legitimacy of power.” From reading Halberstam, one would never guess that in 1945-46 Ho’s deputy Giap carried out a reign of terror in which thousands of the leading noncommunist nationalists in territory controlled by Ho’s regime were assassinated, executed, imprisoned, or exiled. Halberstam condemns the repression carried out by the Saigon regime: “Diem and the Americans had blocked elections in 1956 and Diem had carried out massive arrests against all his political opponents, particularly anyone who had fought with the Vietminh.” Of the far more severe repression in North Vietnam, there is not a word in Halberstam’s book. The Maoist-inspired terror of collectivization in the mid-fifties, in which at least ten-thousand North Vietnamese were summarily executed because they belonged to the wrong “class,” is not mentioned. Nor is the anticommunist peasant rebellion that followed; nor the deployment of the North Vietnamese military to crush the peasants; nor the succeeding purge of North Vietnamese intellectuals; nor the fact that almost ten times as many Vietnamese, during the brief period of resettlement, fled from communist rule as left South Vietnam for the North. The equivalent of Halberstam’s book would be a flattering biography of Stalin that praised his leadership during World War II while omitting any mention of the gulag, the purges, and the Ukrainian famine, or an admiring biography of Mao that failed to mention the Cultural Revolution or the starvation of tens of millions during the Great Leap Forward.

Halberstam is even less forthcoming when the subject is relations among North Vietnam, China, and the Soviet Union. He accurately describes Ho’s background in the French Communist party and his residence in the Soviet Union in the 1930s. But Halberstam omits any mention of Soviet or Chinese support for North Vietnam after 1949. “No matter that the superpower America was aiding the South; [Ho] realized that the Saigon government had no base of popular support.” No mention is made of the fact that the Hanoi government was aided by the Soviet superpower and China, a great power. The fact that in 1950, responding to pressure from Ho, Stalin ordered Mao to support Ho’s regime; the fact that the victory of North Vietnam against the French depended on military supplies and advice from the Sino-Soviet bloc; the fact that Ho’s dictatorship modeled its structure and policies on Mao’s China and Stalin’s Soviet Union; the fact that Soviet and Chinese deterrence forced the United States to fight in unfavorable conditions in Vietnam; the fact that hundreds of thousands of Chinese logistics troops, as well as Chinese and Soviet antiaircraft troops and Soviet fighter pilots, took part in the Vietnam War; the fact that North Vietnam would have been forced to abandon its effort to conquer South Vietnam, if not for massive Soviet and Chinese subsidies–all of these facts are omitted from Halberstam’s Ho.

That these damning facts were omitted by design rather than by mistake becomes clear when one examines the sources that Halberstam lists in his bibliography. Halberstam’s book leaves out everything critical written about Ho Chi Minh by the authors that Halberstam used as his sources. For example, one of Halberstam’s authorities, Joseph Buttinger, described the repressiveness of Ho’s government in great detail, and bitterly condemned it, in Vietnam: A Dragon Embattled (1967). The major source for Halberstam’s Ho appears to have been the book Ho Chi Minh published by the antiwar French journalist Jean Lacouture in 1968.

In an interview in the late 1970s with a Milan newspaper, Lacouture, referring to the communist dictatorship in Cambodia, spoke of “my shame for having contributed to the installation of one of the most oppressive regimes history has ever known.” … Lacouture described pro-Hanoi journalists in the West like himself as “vehicles and intermediaries for a lying and criminal propaganda, ingenious spokesmen for tyranny in the name of liberty.” In light of this confession, the fact that Halberstam is even less critical of Ho than his source Lacouture, then a supporter of Hanoi, raises serious questions….

American academic histories of the Vietnam War tend to show the same biases that are evident in the work of journalists such as Fitzgerald and Halberstam.

SOURCE: Vietnam, the Necessary War: A Reinterpretation of America’s Most Disastrous Military Conflict, by Michael Lind (Simon & Schuster, 1999), pp. 176-178

Well, I suppose it’s clear enough where most of my received wisdom about the War in Vietnam has come from. Uncle Ho is certainly overdue for the kind of debunking that Mao has been getting.

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