Last month, a group of Americans won a victory of sorts in Vietnam. We heard former high-ranking Vietnamese officials admit publicly for the first time that their side had made costly errors that helped escalate the war. "We were not 100 percent correct," said former foreign ministry official Phan Doan Nam about the Tet Offensive--the communists' devastating attack on South Vietnam in 1968.
The simplicity of the comment belies its significance. While the mistakes made by the United States have long been a topic of soul-searching and debate, Vietnam has portrayed its war record as a series of triumphs. Nam's words are important both because of their unprecedented directness and because they mark a break with official Vietnamese history, which records Tet as "the greatest victory ever." What's more, during three days of conversations, we heard shades of meaning that would probably have escaped American peace negotiators 30 years ago.
I had come to Hanoi with a group of five American scholars and a U.S. army colonel. They and a handful of war-era Washington officials have over the last three years held a series of seven conferences with our former enemies, intent on making sense of the misunderstandings that haunt their shared past.
My own interests in the discussions were quite different. I have no memories, let alone direct experience, of the war. But I wrote my undergraduate thesis at Brown University last year on the peace-making efforts that were the subject of these discussions, and I was invited by James G. Blight--my adviser, and a ringmaster of the Hanoi conferences--to attend. I was also eager to connect the conflict I'd been analyzing with the country I'd gotten to know while studying abroad last year in Ho Chi Minh City (the former Saigon). Until recently, even Vietnamese, a language I can barely grasp after four months there, seemed more coherent to me than the arcane terminology of the war--the ARVNs, the MACVs and the COSVNs.
I have come to realize that my generation's distance from the war offers a certain objectivity. I have no trouble sympathizing with the pain and loss of people on every side--the U.S. soldiers who risked their lives in the jungle only to be spat upon at home; the communist-hating refugees still flying the South Vietnamese flag at the Eden Center in Northern Virginia; the Viet Cong who lived in the suffocating Cu Chi tunnels just outside Saigon; the protesters with their chants of "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" They were all acting in the name of duty or honor, as they saw it. It seems clear to me that blame for the quagmire lies with leaders on both sides.
In my thesis--which was translated and sent ahead to Vietnamese participants at the conference--I had heaped criticism on the United States and its communist opponents alike. I told the story of how the United States and North Vietnam came to the brink of peace in 1967, then plunged right back into five years of increasingly bloody fighting. It is a line of thinking I had developed with Blight and Vassar history professor Robert K. Brigham, who both recently collaborated with former secretary of defense Robert McNamara in compiling "Argument Without End: In Search of Answers to the Vietnam Tragedy," which analyzes the debates from earlier conferences.
We--Blight, Brigham and I--had concluded that the North Vietnamese missed the chance to make peace in the fall of 1967 when they cut off a secret peace initiative, code-named PENNSYLVANIA, just as the United States was ready to engage in serious talks. They rejected PENNSYLVANIA because they were in the midst of planning the Tet Offensive, the attack on most every city and town in South Vietnam that was timed to coincide with the Asian New Year celebration, traditionally an occasion for a cease-fire. We believe that instead of shortening the war, as both Vietnamese and American historians have long contended, Tet in fact lengthened the conflict.
By escalating the bloodshed, we argued, the communists strengthened American hawks and helped put Richard Nixon in the White House. At the same time, Hanoi decimated its own ally in the south of Vietnam--the National Liberation Front--and embarrassed the Saigon government. When the Paris peace talks started just a few months after Tet, all sides were too bruised and suspicious to hold the kind of fruitful negotiations that might have taken place a year before under the umbrella of PENNSYLVANIA. The vast majority of Vietnam War casualties came after the start of formal peace talks.
A lump formed in my throat as I listened, through a translator, to the Vietnamese participants explaining that the feelings of their people would be deeply wounded by our assertions. Each of the three days of the conference, the elderly men across the table argued that much of what I had written in my thesis was totally wrong. Although Tet had cost them between 33,000 and 58,000 troops, they adhered largely to the official line--that the Tet Offensive "broke the aggressive will" of the United States and thus paved the way for peace.
At one point in the conference, David Welch, a political scientist from the University of Toronto, explained--in a departure from conventional American scholarship--how the failure of PENNSYLVANIA drained President Lyndon Johnson of any faith he had had in the peace process--and altered the political debate in the upcoming elections. "I think it's reasonable to suggest that if there had been no Tet Offensive," Welch argued, "Hubert Humphrey might [have been] president in '68, and I have trouble imagining Humphrey prosecuting the war as intensely as Nixon and [Secretary of State Henry] Kissinger."
Several of the Vietnamese explicitly disagreed with Welch's controversial hypothesis. But they made a few revealing remarks--precious gems scattered amid the usual ideological polemics. "One of our foreign policies was to assist the doves," said former peace negotiator Nguyen Khac Huynh. "We knew that to some extent the Tet Offensive strengthened the hawks in the Johnson administration," said Phan Doan Nam. "Our original targets were too high," admitted Gen. Nguyen Dinh Uoc. "Because of the protracted offensive in the cities, our casualties were very high."
Luu Doan Huynh, another former foreign ministry official, commented that Hanoi had already learned from previous invaders--the Chinese, the Japanese and the French--not to "humiliate the big powers. It will be very harmful." But the North Vietnamese overlooked that lesson when they were planning Tet. As Blight later argued, the Tet Offensive was so humiliating that the United States couldn't walk away without giving some good, hard kicks as it left.
We, the Americans at the conference table, tried to put the pieces of the puzzle together. If North Vietnam's policy was to assist the doves, and the Tet Offensive fed the hawks instead, was it a good idea? If humiliating the United States would be harmful, and Tet did just that, was it the best possible move? The Vietnamese did not have to spell out the answers. We were paying attention to the clues.
I had known all along that the Vietnamese could never agree to much of what I had written. To assent to such a serious critique of the government in a closed communist system would almost certainly cost them their jobs. In 1982, Gen. Tran Van Tra's memoir was banned because he wrote that, with the Tet Offensive, Hanoi had "set requirements that were beyond our actual strength." Yet now I could see that our partners in Hanoi were beginning to make the same kinds of statements.
And I also know how difficult it still is for the Vietnamese to speak openly about the price they had to pay for the war. When I took classes in Ho Chi Minh City, it frustrated me that Vietnamese lecturers stuck doggedly to the party line even when it was blatantly contradictory. But the Vietnamese have made a giant leap forward in their willingness to share information.
At the same time, we Americans have become better dialogue partners. While Hanoi spoke far too softly in the past, we barely paid attention. Our conference partners have told us that during the war, Hanoi would send subtle "signals" of approval for a given peace move, even when its overt pronouncements were totally negative. Its efforts were fruitless: Washington had few experts on Vietnamese history--and little patience for reading between the lines.
Some of the participants in the early conferences similarly failed to make much progress. Former CIA official and White House aide Chester L. Cooper lamented in these pages two years ago that the Vietnamese offered mostly sermons and polemics. Certainly there are still sermons and polemics, but now my professors have learned not to assess the value of a particular conversation without reading and rereading the transcripts. The more attention we pay, the more the Vietnamese seem to divulge.
My own reaction serves as a perfect example. I grew so weary of listening to criticism of my thesis that sometimes my attention drifted, and I missed valuable nuggets. Not until I flew to Washington, slept off my jet lag and reread my notes did I really begin to understand what I had heard. Knowing more about Vietnam--the country, not the war--than our wartime leaders had known, I was able to "read the tea leaves" in a way that was never easy for the U.S. government in the 1960s. I can well imagine how tired our peace negotiators must have become of Hanoi's Marxist harangues. I'm sure they stopped listening and missed all those subtle signals.
Luckily, those of us who have been to Vietnam since the war have impressions of the place that can complement the knowledge of our elders. I have felt the disquieting stillness amid the ruins of Hue, the imperial capital, where the communists murdered thousands during the Tet Offensive and buried the victims in mass graves. I have pitied the skinny, weathered men who drive cyclos--bicycle-driven rickshaws--because, as veterans of the old Saigon government's army, they are forever shut out of better jobs. I have watched grown Vietnamese men and women sob at the memorial to My Lai, the village where American troops massacred as many as 500 civilians in 1968.
Interacting with these people made it easier for me to understand the men my grandfather's age sitting across from me at a conference table last month. I had a body of knowledge that our peace negotiators never had available to them. And I'm convinced that, finally, our two countries are having a real conversation--and that our ears should be tuned for more.
Marcella Bombardieri is an intern at The Washington Post.
CAPTION: U.S. Marines take cover behind a tank in Hue during the Tet Offensive, which North Vietnam called "the greatest victory ever." In recent dialogues, a former foreign ministry official called it something the Vietnamese were "not 100 percent correct" about.