The Vietnamization Of The American Revolution

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Even so, circumstances and events just might have generated the terrorism and guerrilla conflict so opposed in principle by our forefathers. What if before 1775 British authorities had imprisoned rioters, had shipped patriot leaders like Samuel Adams to England to be tried for treason, and directed royal troops to enforce obnoxious Parliamentary acts with bayonets? In short, what if Britain had treated her dissident colonies in the New World the way she treated Ireland in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—with arbitrary arrests, treason trials, land confiscations, and so on? Doubtless there would have been violence and atrocities just as there were in Ireland. Americans, in contrast, had primarily constitutional complaints, which they voiced in speeches and petitions without fear of reprisals. They did so without apprehension because Britain’s physical hold on faroff America was weak and also because they possessed (unlike Ireland) legal and political institutions that could effectively cripple London’s ambitious imperial schemes.

In short, the American colonists knew their British cousins very well, knew what they could get away with. Two centuries later Mohandas Gandhi likewise understood the British and the methods his Indian people could use against them. Gandhi’s millions of peasants were weaponless and could scarcely be regimented militarily in any case. His scheme was to beat the British with the overriding quality that the multitudes had in abundance, their immutable inertia. If they regularly did nothing at home, he would have them do nothing in the streets—obstructing docks, trolleys, cars, and so on. Such a strategy would not have worked in all times and all places. But the Indians in the nineteen thirties and forties were not the Irish of an earlier day; and the British were not Hitler’s Nazis, who would have thought nothing of machine-gunning thousands of obstructionists. (In fact, to jump back to the eighteenth century, we should remember that the unplanned shooting of a few riffraff in Boston in 1770 by thoroughly provoked regulars—the so-called Boston Massacre—so embarrassed British authorities that they withdrew their soldiers from the city.)

While parallels between the American War of Independence and the Vietnam War have been exaggerated, some are valid. Britain in 1776 and America in the 1960’s were the superpowers of their day, each convinced it could not lose a war. Both American rebels and Vietnamese insurgents obtained military support from other nations. Both superpowers received lusty criticism at home from dissenting groups. The Johnson administration and George Ill’s ministers prolonged their respective wars because of their belief in a domino theory—for Britain this meant that the loss of the Thirteen Colonies would lead to secessionist movements in other parts of the empire; for the Johnson team it meant that communism eventually would prevail throughout Southeast Asia. Both Britain and America were fighting logistically arduous wars amid heavy foliage and rugged terrain in remote regions of the globe.

There are fewer comparisons, however, between the insurgency of the American rebels and the Vietcong and their allies. This is true in part because, as we have indicated, our independence struggle was not primarily a guerrilla war. (But it did have its irregular features. Local people often came forth to assist in repelling the invaders, especially in the South between 1780 and 1782, where even the American ranking general, Nathanael Greene, temporarily played the role of a partisan owing to the smallness of his command.)

Moreover, Americans intervened in an ongoing Vietnamese civil war. Our Revolution only became a civil war after fighting broke out between British regulars and American Whigs; only then did fence-straddlers and royalists have to show their real colors. In America the rebels began with most of the politically active people on their side. Therefore, the Vietcong had a much greater task in that it had to win a sizable part of the civilian population and build an underground political organization. The American rebels had in their colonial militias and provincial congresses a valuable revolutionary infrastructure from the opening clash of arms.

Why has the idea of the American Revolution as a guerrilla war taken such a hold on the public mind? Our recent concerns over the Vietcong and other wars of national liberation clearly provide us with much if not all of the answer. This ahistorical Vietnamization of the American Revolution should serve as a warning. Correctly viewed, the present is the product of the past; the past is not the product of the present.