Editor’s note: Mr Jonas Hoffmann studies English and politics in the teaching degree for lower secondary school at the University of Education Karlsruhe. He chose the topic “The Sustainable Development Goals” in my “Global English(es) & Global Citizenship Education” seminar in the summer term 2019 for his presentation assignment, because he is very interested in political solutions for global challenges. He subsequently wrote an article on this topic in our series “Language Education & Global Citizenship“.
His interest in Lao P.D.R. and its history increased due to the interesting discussions he had with three Lao Erasmus+ exchange partners from Savannakhet University in our seminar, Mr Napha Khothphouthone, Ms Viengilaiphone Botthoulath, and Mr Thaithanawanh Keokaisone. As a consequence of this newly raised interest in Indochinese politics and history, in 2020 he decided to write his Bachelor thesis about “The Relevance of the Ho Chi Minh Trail during the Second Indochina War“, which is published on the Research page under Full-texts.
Jonas Hoffmann has a strong interest in political conflicts all over the world and combines his two subjects English and politics whenever possible. His interest in political measures regarding sustainability has further led to an article about the “Minneapolis 2040 Plan“, published in the monthly geographical journal “Praxis Geographie” together with his father Hon.Prof. Dr. Thomas Hoffmann.1 He will continue his studies with a 4-month internship in Ireland and is planning to write his Master thesis on the US American “War on Terror” with a special focus on Afghanistan.
Readers will remember from a previous post by Johannes Zeck how Laos was drawn into the conflict – although it never formally entered the war – because the Trail used routes through Laos. Jasmin Unterweger (Team VII) travelled through one such affected area and reported on some of the consequences, as “the US dropped more than two million tons of bombs on Laos, which makes it the most heavily-bombed country in history relative to its polulation” (cf. Unterweger, Note 3). This meant 9,000 air raids per day over nine years, contaminating the countryside along the Lao-Vietnamese border.
The “Secret War” is therefore the Lao name for the “American War“, as the Vietnamese call it in their language, or the “Vietnam War“, as the Americans call it in English. It was secret from the Lao perspective because media coverage of the Second Indochina War focused almost exclusively on Vietnam. The strong and severe impacts on Lao people and nature in form of dropped ordnances and spraying of Agent Orange was not globally acknowledged. To this day, unexploded bombs (UXO) kill two Lao citizens per week on average (at least 20,000 since the war ended) while barely 1 million of the estimated 80 million unexploded ordnance has been cleared.
The withdrawal of US American Military Forces from Afghanistan – a repeating trauma
Due to the recent departure of international military forces, especially of the US military, the situation in Afghanistan can be interpreted as yet another failure of a US American mission. Only a few hours after major general Chris Donahue, the last US soldier in Afghanistan, had left the country on 31 August 2021, Taliban representatives posed for a triumphant image in the office of former Afghan president Ashraf Ghani in Kabul, the recently conquered capital city of Afghanistan. Since the US government declared the withdrawal of US American troops from the country, the media has been full of images and videos of Afghans who desperately tried to get hold of one of the rare seats on one of the military planes leaving the country.
These images remind us of desperate Vietnamese citizens trying to escape from Saigon in 1975 after Communist forces had conquered the capital city of South Vietnam. Similarly to the situation in Kabul in August 2021, the withdrawal of the last US troops caused chaos and despair for the people of South Vietnam because they found themselves exposed to oppressing forces after their former protectors had left the country. The same terrible situation can be observed now – despite 20 years of attempted “nation-building” in Afghanistan.
David Versus Goliath
No other conflict since World War II has played such an important role on the global scale and especially for the United States like the Second Indochina War. It was the first war which was made visible to households all around the world through the media. Therefore, the American politicians who were responsible for the war – especially Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon – had to face mass protests worldwide.
As the Second Indochina War emerged together with the Cold War, it can be interpreted as a proxy war between the two major ideological ideas of the world at that time: Democratic capitalism versus autocratic Communism. As the conflict was a proxy war, the two ideologically opposing parts of Vietnam, the North and the South, received financial and military aid from China and the Soviet Union on the one side and the United States on the other side. Both sides aimed to push through their ideologies. The military aid coming from the opposing camps was transported within Vietnam via hidden routes in the jungle which had existed for many centuries, but which were extended and improved within the 20th century and had reached a length of about 10,000 miles – at sea, on land, and above ground and below, during the Second Indochina War.
Dealing with foreign oppression was nothing new for the Vietnamese. Throughout the centuries, numerous forces had tried to invade the small Southeast Asian country, i.e. the Chinese, the Mongolians, the French, and the Americans. As the oppressing countries were economically and militarily superior to Vietnam, these conflicts can be described as “David-versus-Goliath” scenarios, where a very small opponent faces a giant adversary. Although Vietnam had been under Chinese rule for approximately 1,000 years and the French had colonialized the country for approximately 70 years, the Vietnamese were able to regain independence each time. Considering this long history of successfully overthrowing foreign oppressors, it is not surprising that the Vietnamese were able to resist the Americans as well. Vietnam became the first nation which defeated the United States in a war.
The reason for this impressive and successful resistance is that the Vietnamese forces used guerilla warfare in order to defeat the economically and militarily superior enemies. This strategy of warfare enabled Vietnamese forces to avoid open battles, which they probably would have lost due to their inferiority regarding financial capacity, amount of soldiers, and firepower. Instead, they took advantage of their natural environment – hardly accessible mountainous jungle – where they could hide and through which they could also supply their troops. Over the centuries, this kind of warfare and the resulting infrastructure in the jungle had grown.
While the Second Indochina War was evolving, the network of supply routes was named after the most important North Vietnamese political leading figure: Ho Chi Minh. Until today, the Ho Chi Minh Trail needs to be mentioned when discussing the events of the Second Indochina War, due to its important strategic value.
But was the Ho Chi Minh Trail so important that it played the decisive role in winning this war?
The thesis examines the events of both Indochina wars and their aftermaths while taking diverse national perspectives into account. The Ho Chi Minh Trail is of special interest regarding this matter, as it enabled the guerrilla tactics of the Vietnamese armed forces, which eventually led to victory. Although Laos was severely affected by the war and both its people and nature suffered – and is still suffering – enormous damage, the focus of media coverage worldwide remained on Vietnam.
Therefore, the thesis always balances the perspectives of the Western powers, Vietnam, and the Laotian perspective. In this way, the “secret war” is uncovered, at least to a certain extent.
Text by J. Hoffmann
Editor’s note: Thanks to Jonas, the son, I was made aware of Thomas, the father, one of the leading German experts on education for sustainable development. He is a regular guest-speaker now in my seminar and shows our students ways forward; his contributions to our work will be detailed in another post.
Burning Hut in Vietnam during the Second Indochina War. Pixabay Free Images. URL: https://pixabay.com/de/photos/krieg-flammenwerfer-soldat-bazooka-67524/
US American soldiers in Afghanistan. Pixabay Free Images. URL: https://pixabay.com/de/photos/afghanistan-marinesoldaten-milit%c3%a4r-108885/
North Vietnamese soldiers on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Stewart, Richd W. Public Domain. URL: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ho_chi_minh_trail.jpg