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Chapter One
Background to Armageddon

DURING the years of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, American newscasters and editorialists often described that country as small and far away. There were elements of truth in this characterization but, as with most cliches, it was chosen for aptness rather than accuracy and must be qualified. With regard to distance, a look at the globe shows that Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, and Hanoi a real most exactly opposite New York in longitude, about as far apart as it is possible for places to be in the northern hemisphere. But America is a big country, and the distance from New York to San Francisco is nearly a fourth that from New York to Saigon. Vietnam, moreover, is separated from North America mainly by ocean, and the broad expanses of the Pacific have presented few impediments to navigation since the advent of trans oceanic steamships in the second half of the nineteenth century. Intercontinental air travel, a practical reality since the late 1930s, shrank the distance further still. During World War II, the United States maintained a regular air service across the Pacific from California t Australia and, over even greater distances, from Floridato China by way of South America, Africa and India. That Vietnam was omitted almost entirely from America's wartime calculations was due to political and strategic imperatives, and not to distance. When, in the waning years of French colonial rule, Vietnam dawned on the American consciousness, there were many parts of the world more inaccessible to America in terms of time and expense. The question of size is also relative. Vietnamese small compared to the United States, but size alone means little. As strategic analyst Harry Summers has noted, Vietnam is only slightly smaller than the Germany which opposed America in two world wars.

Another familiar cliche in the years of dawning American awareness was that Vietnam was a new nation. In fact Vietnam was old, with a strong, coherent culture and well-established traditions of independence, but most of what Americans knew about Vietnam came from the French, who downplayed the traditions of the nation they had subjugated. Lack of awareness of these realities was among the first of many American misperceptions of Vietnam which cost both countries dearly.

The first record of Vietnam is in Chinese documents of the early fifth century B.C. which refer to a Viet kingdom south of the Yangtze River, By the mid-fourth century B.C., the Viet kingdom had fallen and its populace, along with other non-Han groups in what is today southern China, notably the Thai, Lao and Hmong, migrated south in response to Chinese pressure. About207 B.C., Vietnamese polities from the area west of present-day Canton to the Red River Delta and as far south as modern Hue united as Nam, or southern, Viet. Vietnamese civilization had by then assumed its essential character, marked by the wet cultivation of rice, capable of sustaining much higher population densities than competing methods of food production, notably upland farming based on slash and burn methods, and the organization of social and economic activity in family, village and clan units.

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