“If I were to ask you in a test who was leading North Vietnam during the 1960s and early 1970s before his death, you would all say Ho Chi Minh. You would not be right.”—Documentarian Ken Burns, discussing a basic assumption about Vietnam that is untrue, quoted in Allison Levitsky, “Burns, Ward Show Clips From 2017 Documentary Series ‘Vietnam’,” The Chautauquan Daily, August 7, 2014
The correct answer to the hypothetical test question above is Le Duan, who, for all intents and purposes, ran North Vietnam from January 1959 through this day 45 years ago, when Hanoi Radio announced that Ho Chi Minh (pictured) had just died.
Don’t feel bad about not knowing that Ho was only a revered elder statesman during that decade—neither did President Lyndon Johnson or Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara until someone told them one and a half years into the American ground war, and a half-dozen years after Le Duan began exerting authority.
In other words, the United States was not adhering to one of the elementary principles of war: Know your enemy.
I can think of few things more dispiriting than that, after nearly 50 years, millions of dollars, and who knows how many violation of civil liberties later, the U.S. effort to compile intelligence on those who mean it harm has failed dismally.
The United States paid for its intelligence failure in Vietnam through 55,000 lives lost. Who knows what the cost of the war on terror (now in yet another phase with the machinations of ISIS) will be in the end?
At the moment, however, I think the American people are well within their rights to demand from the federal government all the money foolishly misspent on “intelligence” in the last 10 years. I am looking forward to other revelations from the Burns documentary series about Vietnam (previewed, 2 1/2 years ahead of time, for lucky Chautauqua Institution visitors such as myself). But it's a shame that it takes a half century for these insights to come to pass, rather than closer to the moment of a nation's decision to spend blood and treasure abroad.