SOUTH VIET NAM: RISING RESENTMENT OF THE U.S.
Friday, Oct. 24, 1969 (TIME magazine)
THERE were no Vietnamese demonstrations in South Viet Nam last week to coincide with Moratorium Day, U.S.A. If there had been, though, a surprising number of Vietnamese might have joined in, not simply to join in expressing their weariness with the war but also to hurry all those Americans out of their country. Anti-Americanism is rising perceptibly in Viet Nam, an inevitable phenomenon when half a million U.S. troops are plunked down in the midst of a nation of 17 million people.
An odd if understandable ambivalence characterizes this particular species of anti-Americanism. The Vietnamese are at once grateful for and hostile to the U.S. presence, which has placed enormous strains on the fragile fabric of their society. They would like to see the ubiquitous Americans go home but not before South Viet Nam is more firmly established than at present. They may find the Americans an irritant, but many would scourge them as bugouts if they withdraw too rapidly, leaving South Viet Nam to an uncertain fate. More than a year ago, Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky voiced that duality when he said: "If the Americans want to withdraw, they can go ahead. We only want people who want to stay." Last week President Nguyen Van Thieu phrased it similarly. Said Thieu, who occasionally has sought to enhance his popularity by playing on South Vietnamese resentment of the Americans: "I do not ask the U.S. troops to stay here for 100 years. I only ask the Americans to have the courage and the clear sight to remain here until we nationalists have enough military, economic and political strength."
Cultural Defoliation. The signs of anti-Americanism are most obvious in Saigon. Nightly, along the city's gaudy Tu Do and Hai Ba Trung streets, G.I.s and South Vietnamese troops swap insults and punches often over the favors of bar girls. In one such honky-tonk brawl earlier this month, a major in the Vietnamese Rangers chopped off the hand of a U.S. military policeman with a machete. In June, two American military police who had rushed to a bar in response to complaints that a drunken G.I. was making trouble were shot to death by Lieut. Colonel Nguyen Viet Can, commander of the Vietnamese airborne battalion that guards President Thieu's Independence Palace. No charges were filed against the colonel.
The taunts of Saigon's "cowboys," the Honda-riding young toughs who infest the capital, have become so nasty that few respectable women like to be seen walking with foreigners, particularly with Americans. "O.K., ten dollars" or "O.K., Salem" are favorite "cowboy" slurs, implying that the woman has sold herself for money or cigarettes. The Vietnamese press abounds with tearful stories of happily married Vietnamese women who left their husbands for the lure of the dollar and the company of Americans. By word of mouth, other, more bizarre tales make the rounds. Some uneducated Vietnamese men actually believe that U.S. troops are carriers of the "shrinking bird" disease, which is said to cause the slow shriveling of the male genitals; the Americans, so the story goes, are immune because of pills and inoculations.
Members of the French-educated elite, including civil servants and many intellectuals, criticize the U.S. from a somewhat loftier level. They accuse the Americans of practicing a kind of cultural defoliation in Viet Nam. "We consider your country too young, and there is not much we can learn from you, save for what we call modern development," says one intellectual. "We tend to equate you with machines for whom there is no deep thinking." Says another: "Americans have no culture, unless you call beer and big bosoms culture." At Saigon's Cercle Sportif and around upper-middle-class dining tables, a frequent topic of conversation is "la gaucherie americaine" which may include anything from the way G.I.s gun their big trucks through Saigon's streets to the contention that one U.S. embassy official speaks to President Thieu as though he were a "houseboy." Americans are blamed for ruining once beautiful Saigon ("Why do they cut down all the trees?") and for turning all of Viet Nam into a gigantic garbage pile. Though such talk has long been in vogue in educated circles, much of it may result from the desire of some Vietnamese to establish their anti-American credentials in the event of a Communist takeover.
Turned Inward. Viet Nam's history makes anti-Americanism a predictable phenomenon. The Vietnamese character, proud and intensely nationalistic was shaped in repeated wars with the Chinese and later with the French. Before the French invaded Indo-China in the late 1850s, Viet Nam was turned inward, in the Confucian tradition, shunning Western culture and technology. When the French arrived, they were greeted with bitter hatred and a protracted series of rebellions, which culminated in their defeat at Dienbienphu in 1954. Now that the French are long gone, having left behind businessmen, educators and diplomats, they are clearly more highly regarded than the Americans. Cultural affinities remain relatively strong; educated Vietnamese send their children to French-run prep schools, and degrees from French universities carry more prestige than those from U.S. universities. Moreover, the French war was never as disruptive as the present conflict. At its high point, there were only 200,000 French troops in all of Viet Nam, and there was far less destruction.
No nation finds it easy to accept the idea that it owes most of what it has, including its continued existence, to the fighting men of another nation, particularly when those men often show hostility rather than sympathy. G.I.s in the field frequently find it impossible to distinguish between "bad" and "good" Vietnamese; as a result, they often callously mistreat all of them. Few American soldiers are in Viet Nam because they want to be, and many take out their resentments on their not-so-friendly hosts. "They're all gooks," says a sergeant at Tay Ninh, using the derogatory term once reserved for the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese. "Not one of them is worth a damn." Other epithets include "dinks" and "slopes." Peasants are obviously unhappy when U.S. tanks crunch through their rice fields or helicopter gunners fire at water buffalo or at the peasants themselves. American affluence, symbolized by the PXs bulging with U.S. wares, stands in sharp contrast to the widespread poverty in Viet Nam. Rigid security precautions, however necessary, are also a source of resentment. Every day thousands of Vietnamese workers, men and women, line up outside U.S. bases like cattle moving into a chute to be frisked before they start the day's work.
Among the scores of Viet Nam contingency plans that the Pentagon holds ready, there is one that calls for withdrawing American forces to fight their way to the beaches against a hostile South Vietnamese army. It is unlikely that the plan will ever have to be put into operation. Even so, anti-Americanism is a factor for U.S. policymakers to contend with, and it is more likely to increase than to decrease in virulence.