Homage to General Nguyen Chanh Thi

29 Jul

From www.mcgeepost.com .Copyright © 2012 Michael H. McGee. All rights reserved. Please feel free to share or re-post all or part non-commercially, hopefully with attribution. (Photo Copyright Life Magazine.)

In the late 1980’s when I was a federal government legal manager, we called together our whole staff to listen to a speech by a young black South African lawyer. This man said there was only one person who could lead South Africa out of Apartheid, and this one man was Nelson Mandela. At the time Mandela was still in prison, facing an uncertain future.

I scoffed and felt this lawyer was seriously misguided in is belief that one man could change the whole situation of governance in the hyper-charged conflict which was South Africa at the time. I felt the situation there was beyond hope, and that South Africa would end up as a torn nation. Well, as later events and a Nobel Prize proved, this young lawyer was correct, and I was wrong. Nelson Mandela succeeded in creating stability from the chaos and injustice in his nation.

Now that I know how wrong I was then, I can say that there is another great man who could have single-handedly created stability out of the chaos and injustice in his country. This man was General Nguyen Chanh Thi. His country was South Vietnam, and the year was 1966.

I was in Vietnam as a military advisor for a year ending in May of 1966. We all knew of General Thi. We knew he was the most talented general in the South Vietnamese Army. We knew he’d been offered the position of Prime Minister and turned it down. At the time we didn’t know why. Now we do know why.

To our government’s credit, they allowed General Thi to leave Vietnam in late 1966 and live in a comfortable exile in DC, and he died in peace in 2007. Even at their worst, our people knew the General was an extraordinary man, and kept him safe. He just wouldn’t toe the line on our policy of invading his country in force. A brilliant warrior, he was at heart a man of peace, not given to vengeance or jealousy.

I had the great good fortune to visit privately for almost two hours with General Nguyen Chanh Thi in 1967 at his comfortable apartment in Washington. I represented a newspaper. Even though I had been one of the invaders of his country back when, he treated me like a long lost son and his hospitality was so pleasing that I felt surrounded in a warm glow.

The article I wrote, which went out on the wire services, is now in storage in Vermont. So I don’t know what I wrote about him. I do remember that my story was entirely complimentary and was written with a sense of humility.

The United States military effectively took over full control of South Vietnam during the summer of 1965. The US government was intent on having a puppet leader who would do as he was told. General Thi would never have done as he was told, and never did do so. If he had been made Prime Minister he would likely have first insisted that US troops and their war machine leave his country, and second, he would likely have sought – slowly and from a position of strength – a peaceful reunification of the South with North Vietnam.

A million Asian lives would have been saved. Tens of thousands of American lives would have been saved, along with sparing countless wounded soldiers. Countless billions of American tax dollars would have been saved. And perhaps most importantly, General Thi would have made sure that his nation remained neutral and that there would be no escalation or spread of Communism into other countries: which was the primal fear for the American policy-makers at the time.

General Thi never got his chance to be the one man who could stabilize his country and keep it on a path toward internal national goals. The reason was that the American war machine, by late in 1966, was so stoked with its own sense of power and invincibility that the choppers and tanks rolled right over this righteous man, thus perpetuating and increasing the brutality of the War in Vietnam for many years thereafter.

Nelson Mandela was given virtually a free hand by the vested interests in South Africa. In return he protected much of the existing economic infrastructure, which he saw as necessary if South Africa was to become a modern nation. He also swore off vengeance, never allowed retribution to become an internal driving force. General Thi would likely have done the same.

Mandela’s nation, unlike General Thi’s nation, was not occupied by a huge and arrogant military force; whose policy makers believed they could use force to mow down anything in their paths; who insisted on maintaining puppet dictators in power; and who’d convinced themselves that they could “wait until later” to establish democracy in Vietnam, after all the opposition had been killed off.

What brought all these memories back to me was reading an iUniverse novel, “Diverting the Buddha,” by Bob Swartzel, which I got from Amazon.com. Every word of this novel tracks history and is written with a heart overflowing with love. He tells the story of the attempts by General Thi and the Buddhist leaders to bring democracy and peace to South Vietnam, during a time when the Americans could only dispense blood and treachery.

In this novel Bob Swartzel shows he loves Vietnam as much as I do, and shows he respects the individual American soldier as much as I do. He mourns the loss of good American men doing their best to implement a whole bundle of misguided and deceitful policies. This novel should be required reading for historians attempting to learn the lessons taught in the bloody cauldron of the Vietnam War.

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