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Douglas Pike On the Tragedy of Our Times

By Douglas Pike as told to Larry Engelmann
6/7/2018 • Vietnam Magazine

Tough questions remained even for the man who arguably knew the intricacies of Vietnam better than anyone else.


Douglas Pike arrived in Saigon in 1960 as an employee of the U.S. Agency for International Development. He spent much of the next 15 years in country, interrogating defectors and prisoners of war and intensely studying the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese. Through his work on the ground he became one of the leading authorities on the Communist armed forces in Vietnam, writing eight books and scores of articles.

We met for the first time in 1985 at the University of California at Berkeley, where he was director of the Indochina Archive, a singular treasure trove of documents, books, monographs and slides related to the Vietnam War. I often conferred with Doug about my research and writing, taking advantage of his sage advice. He was extremely generous with his time and straightforward and concise in his criticisms, cautions and suggestions. So much of what I learned about the American effort in Vietnam came as a result of Doug’s help. Many of the people I’d interviewed around the world agreed to speak with me based on his recommendation. I spoke with him perhaps a dozen times in the next nine years, sometimes at length in tape-recorded sessions and sometimes merely on the telephone or informally over coffee.

I intended to incorporate our talks into my book Tears Before the Rain: An Oral History of the Fall of South Vietnam (1991)—but I ran into problems of space with the manuscript. When I told Doug about the problem, he recommended I use my interviews with him only as background for my introduction. There were, he assured me, many people far more important than he who must be included in the shortened narrative. So I put aside the transcripts of our talks. The last time I spoke with him was in April 1994 when we were participants in a session of the Shorenstein Symposia and Seminars held on the UC Berkeley campus.

Douglas Pike died in May 2002 at age 77. Those illuminating conversations I’d had with him remained in the back of my mind, along with the intention to publish their transcripts someday. What follows are some key perceptions of a man who said in 1969 that “Vietnam has become the great intellectual tragedy of our times.” Although perhaps as knowledgeable as any other individual on the subject, Doug insisted the Vietnam War was so complex that final judgments were necessarily elusive.


After the death of President Ngo Dinh Diem in November 1963, I had the feeling that the situation in Vietnam was like a stock market. It was not all a downhill skid. It was up and down and up and down. We were close to victory a couple of times and right at the gates of defeat twice. The war was just about lost in early 1965. We were within weeks of losing and everybody on both sides knew it. I still don’t know how we pulled things out that year. I don’t know if anybody really does. We were just hanging on. But the course of the war went up and down again, and there were times when you thought things were going well and other times when you thought they were going to hell. I argued at the time that victory in Vietnam would go to the side that got the best organized, stayed the best organized and most successfully disorganized the other side. After Diem, it became much, much worse in the South in terms of the government organization. We seemed to be forever going through another coup. A government would come in and replace all the province chiefs. Another would come in and replace all the province chiefs again, and this happened over and over.

I remember I had an appointment with the Tay Ninh province chief and it was set up for two weeks in the future. When I finally went there, he had been replaced and a new province chief had been appointed just that morning. I arrived about the same time the new province chief did. We went inside his office, and he turned to me and said, “Do you know where the men’s room is here?” And I said, “Yes, down the hall to the left.” And I went in and sat down and thought, “Here’s a province chief who doesn’t even know where the men’s room in his own office is.” And he was out of there in a month. You can’t run a government like that.


In studying the unfolding of the war, I learned not to look at battles lost and won. There is an irony involved in this. If you lose the battle you will lose the war, but if you win the battle you do not win the war. You merely set the stage for organization, mobilization, solving social problems and so on. So there is an irony—or law—in most guerrilla wars that if they don’t lose, they win. In opposing them you have to neutralize them or hold them off. Victory in the final analysis, however, will come only in dealing with their organizational efforts among the people, their efforts to destabilize the government as well as their waging of low-intensity conflict. And it is questionable to me if outsiders can deal with this completely. It has to be done essentially by the indigenous population, by the people. There is a serious limitation to what foreigners in a xenophobic society like Vietnam can do.


From the time I arrived in Vietnam in 1960, I wanted to learn what made the Communists tick. I concluded that there was no one answer as to what motivated them. The Northerners officially proclaimed that they fought in the name of “unification.” But when I interviewed them I had trouble. I’d ask them what they were doing down in the South, and they would say, “We’ve come to liberate and unify the holy fatherland.” And I’d say, “You don’t really care about that do you? It’s an abstraction.” And they’d say, “Well, why I really came here is because my friends are here, I was sent here, my family expects me to come here too.” In other words, I found that enemy soldiers were motivated primarily by social pressure. It was the same reason many Americans were there. It’s the whole system that sent them there. It doesn’t mean they didn’t believe in it. But it was the organization of the system and the ambience of the system that put people there.

When Diem was overthrown, that was the revolution for a lot of Viet Cong. That was why they fought. They’d won. We got numerous defections from the Southern Viet Cong right after that. They thought that everything they fought for had been accomplished. And we also got numerous defections from high-level party cadres. Some of the most impressive Vietnamese I have ever talked to defected. And I’d ask them why they fought, and the answer was that they didn’t understand my question. Some, however, said something like: “This was my outfit, this is what we did. We were professionals.” “What about democracy?” I’d ask. And they said, “Oh, yes, I’m for that,” and so on. But the official Communist Party line was that they were fighting for land reform and so on. Yet for these wizened 60-year-old men who had been fighting their whole lives, that just didn’t wash. I found that they were mostly apolitical; they had no interest in or little knowledge of communism.

I had assumed that these guys were Marxists to various degrees. That was probably because they said they were and Hanoi said they were. But then I realized that this was just sand in my fingers. There was nothing to hold this together. You’d say to a guy, “You’re a member of the party?” And he would say, “Yes, I actually have a card.” And I’d ask him, “Do you believe that the history of all former societies is the history of class conflict?” And he’d say, “I don’t know what that means.” And I’d say, “How about dialectical materialism, historical determinism, religion as the opiate of the people?” And he’d say, “Yes, no, maybe.” And I’d say: “You’re really a lousy Communist. How did you get into the party? You really don’t know a thing about communism.” And he’d say, “Well the party cadre who examined me told me what the questions would be and what the answers should be.” And I said, “You don’t think there’s anything wrong with that?” And he’d say, “No, you don’t have to know anything about communism to be a good Communist.”

I don’t know how many times I heard that. That’s quite different from communism in the West. In theory, if you master Marxism-Leninism, you are infallible. You can interpret history and all historical phenomena. You are Olympian. But communism on its way from Moscow to Hanoi underwent a sea change. Here was a guy who was willing to go out and fight and die for this, and yet in my mind he was not a Communist at all. Communism was like some icon on the wall. It was semi-religion for him, it was taken on faith alone. Ho Chi Minh had identified with Marxism and communism. And Ho was the spirit of Vietnam to them. And so they said they were Marxists and Communists, too. Just like Ho.


The North Vietnamese prisoners of war I interviewed in the mid- 1960s would always say they were fighting for unification. And the South Vietnamese VC prisoners would always say they were fighting for justice and democracy. There were dramatic and very sharp differences between the North and the South. The Communist Party cadres, of course, would smooth this over.

The Communists had at first defined revolution not as socio – political change, but as getting rid of Diem. And when Diem was gone, the Revolution was over. The Southerners who believed this were bourgeois revolutionists as far as the North was concerned. The North was always afraid of a sellout. So they began sending troops down south early to have them on the spot when the end came. As the war spread and the American presence increased, the relations between North and South got out of whack. The Communists needed more men and they couldn’t get them in the South, and so they sent them down from the North. In 1965 the VC fought maybe 90 percent of the day-to-day battles. By 1972 about 90 percent was the North, the NVA. So the war shifted in terms of personnel; the Northern presence became greater and the number of VC got proportionately smaller. It became a Northern war, moving from a guerrilla war activity to a regular force war, a limited small-scale war.

The fundamental motivating spirit of the Vietnamese is nationalism. The basic thinking of a Vietnamese is that originally there were these 100 tribes of south China. The Han came and assimilated all of these except the Nam Viets, who moved out of south China into the Red River Valley. The Chinese came after them, and for 1,000 years the Nam Viets resisted this assimilation. That explains their relation with the Chinese today. The fact is that they stole their whole civilization from the Chinese—architecture, language and literature. They will tell you, though, that the cultures grew up simultaneously, and they didn’t. There is a great racial pride in this, a Vietnamese identity. They see themselves as distinct and unique.

And in addition to this they are very martial. They are the Prussians of Asia. They see their martial spirit, and they know this has cultivated a Praetorian attitude among them. Both North and South Vietnamese are really hard-as-nails semi-fanatics. But, they see this spirit as essentially defensive. They see themselves as not aggressive and thus unlike the Prussians. Everything they have ever done they see as resistance to something.

Man for man, I don’t think you can make a judgment that will hold up under scrutiny about soldiers in the North and the South. You have this regionalism in Vietnam, North, Central and South. It is like caste in India. You cannot understand Vietnamese politics without considering this geographic regionalism. Usually, in other countries it is North and South. But in Vietnam it is three regions. Northerners see themselves as modern, rational and progressive. Central Vietnamese see themselves as cultural, and the only ones who understand Vietnamese literature. In the South they see themselves as pacifistic and more in touch with nature. The Southerners see the Northerners as money-hungry and sharper in business. Both Northerners and Southerners see the Central Vietnamese as vague-speaking, overly intellectual. And the Northern and Central Vietnamese see the Southerners as lazy and dirty and antimechanical.

My language teachers in Vietnam, and most of my friends, actually had come from the North. They kept up this steady patter trying to convince me of their evaluation of Southerners. I was in a gas station with a Northern friend, and this guy was trying to put air in the tire and he did it wrong and all the air came out, and my friend turned to me and said, “You are looking at a typical Southerner.”

I came into the office one morning with another Northerner, and I said good morning to my secretary and asked, “What did you do on the weekend?” She said, “I went out on a hill and thought about nature.” We went into my office, and my friend turned to me, and said: “Isn’t that typical of a Southerner? Thinking about nature?”

I knew a Southerner in the prime minister’s office, and he told me: “All the trouble here is the hot-headed Northerners. If they only had patience like the Southerners, the French would have left here like the British left India and we would have had none of these wars.”

I would never write this, but it does seem to me that there is a greater martial quality in Northerners and they are more disciplined, and this goes way, way back. After all, in every country you are going to get some differences. We have some of these differences here in the United States: the New Englanders, the Virginia planters, the pioneers in Minnesota. It is a slippery thing to deal with, and it is awfully hard to come to solid judgments. But there is something to this notion that the Northerners were simply better soldiers for various reasons, cultural and otherwise.


And then there is a darker character in the Vietnamese psyche. Nobody has ever done much on this. The Vietnamese culture has been skewed through clandestinism in politics and the syndrome of betrayal, which is endemic in the society. Over the centuries, there has developed a sense of dependency toward the outside world, and this has manifested itself in political terms. You see this in the fact that every major political movement in Vietnam in the 20th century has had a direct connection, a kind of umbilical cord, to an outside source of sustenance and support. The Nationalists with Kuomintang in China, the Dai Viets with Japan, the Buddhists with the Ceylonese, the Marxists and Stalinists with Moscow and Beijing, the South Vietnamese with the United States— every organization in Vietnam has had this umbilical cord.

And it is unlike other countries. In India the leaders had connections with the left in London. But the idea was that they were going to make or break on what they did in India themselves. The Vietnamese, on the other hand, have always had the idea that somebody else is going to deliver what they want to them. Ho Chi Minh was out of his country for 40 years trying to get somebody to deliver his country to him—Sun Yat Sen, the French left, the Americans in World War II, the Chinese, the Russians and so on. This is a psychic dependency, and it exists irrespective of material objectives, military balance of forces, or whatever. It means that you do not think you can sustain yourself without this outside support.

I wrote about this in Washington, D.C., about five years after the Vietnam War: I had been out in an alley in Cleveland Park teaching my son to ride a bicycle. I would run beside him on the bike and hang onto the seat. And he asked, “Are you hanging on?” And I wasn’t and he kept going. Again he shouted, “Are you hanging on?” And he turned and saw that I wasn’t, and he fell off. The thing is, he could ride that bike without me hanging on, but he didn’t think he could.

This paralleled the South Vietnamese psychic dependence on American support. I had the sense of this because of what the Vietnamese told me and what they told themselves: “We can do this without the Americans. We need to do this and we can do it,” they said. But every mother jack of them didn’t believe it. And so when the very first real military test came in Ban Me Thuot in the spring of 1975, they just crumbled.

And it was a total surprise to us. It seemed to make no sense. It is difficult to explain why the South Vietnamese stood and fought in 1968 and 1972. You had three major offenses in 1972 in the north, center and south, and there was not one single incident of a unit deserting, or a unit cutting and running. At An Loc they stood and fought under incredible circumstances. In big and little battles and village defense, forces stood and fought, and the general record is of this tenacious behavior. Yet in the last offensive of the war there was no standing and fighting at all.

What really cultivates this theory of dependence in my thinking is General Vo Nguyen Giap’s reaction to the collapse of the Army of South Vietnam in the Central Highlands around Ban Me Thuot. We were getting high-level intercepts from Hanoi to the field, the substance of which was, “You people are advancing too fast, you’re being sucked in, we want you to slow down, it’s a trap, slow down, consolidate your advance.” And commanders in the field were saying, “No, really, it’s all crumbling.” And the command center responded, “No, no it’s a trap.”

I can understand Hanoi’s thinking on this. The performance of ARVN was way out of sync with anything they had known in the past. I do not believe they crumbled just because the North had tanks. It was because of the psychology of the commanders and the rank and file alike. The feeling that, “We are alone. We have been abandoned by the Americans. We are really alone.” And like my boy on his bicycle, they found when they were alone that they didn’t really believe in themselves.


The argument that they ran out of supplies is not true. They did not run out of guns or bullets or anything else. They still had $5 million worth of war material when the war was over. I thank God that it didn’t go because they ran out of supplies. They would eventually have run out at their rate of expenditure. They knew that, and that is a factor, I think. But I think if you have a lot of material and the enemy is coming, the tendency is to use it up.

I went into this “we ran out of ammunition” explanation a month after the war ended. I was invited to the Army War College to give a speech on why we lost the war. The fact is, I didn’t have the slightest idea why we lost the war. I went through all the literature I could find, mostly newspaper columnists, and I extracted 23 reasons— all separate explanations—for why we lost the war, all of which had some validity but none of which would stand by itself. I took the list to work and I went through it. And then I was hoping against hope that when I gave the lecture nobody would say, “Well what is the right answer?” And the first thing you know, somebody says, “Oh, it’s 14 and 2, that’s it.” And somebody else said, “No it’s 12 and 5.” And the whole rest of this thing is a bull session in which they argued about those 23 reasons. But I came to believe that all of these really in part explain, but none alone explains it.

There is nobody who can give you a single reason as to why it all happened this way. History doesn’t happen like that. There are always multiple causes and multiple results. The notion that there is a single reason is just wrong. You know, there are many popular one-cause theories: Congress cut off funds for the war. That’s why the whole war was lost, some said. They point to Congress, especially the right wing. And then there was the corruption in South Vietnam. And then the press was responsible. All of these are right—and all are wrong. The devil is not only in the details but also somewhere in those countless reasons why.


Larry Engelmann is the author of six books and is a professor of history at San Jose State University. He has been a visiting scholar at California’s Hoover Institution and at Hong Kong University.

Originally published in the October 2008 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.  

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